RIP Pepper the Robot (2014-2020)

RIP Pepper the Robot (2014-2020)
Pepper the robot meets Eurostar customers at St Pancras International station in London, England on October 23, 2018. (Photo: Tabatha Fireman, Getty Images)

Japanese telecom giant SoftBank halted production of Pepper the robot in August of 2020, according to a new report from Reuters. And it seems unlikely that new ones will ever roll off the manufacturing line.

Pepper was developed to be a helper robot with human-like body language, the ability to maintain eye contact, and plenty of small talk. Pepper could be used for things like customer service and giving directions, and this robot even learned how to play the ball-and-cup game.

While Pepper could do a number of useful things, there just wasn’t much consumer demand.

Hello Pepper

SoftBank president Masayoshi Son introduces Pepper in Urayasu, Japan, on June 5, 2014. (Photo: Toru Yamanaka/AFP, Getty Images) SoftBank president Masayoshi Son introduces Pepper in Urayasu, Japan, on June 5, 2014. (Photo: Toru Yamanaka/AFP, Getty Images)

Pepper was introduced to the world by Masayoshi Son, president of SoftBank, on June 15, 2014 at a press conference in suburban Tokyo, Japan. Pepper was billed as having an “emotion engine” and sold for roughly $US2,200 ($2,822).

Pepper goes global

A boy plays with Pepper the robot at Westfield Mall in San Francisco on Dec. 22, 2016.  (Photo: Jeff Chiu, AP) A boy plays with Pepper the robot at Westfield Mall in San Francisco on Dec. 22, 2016. (Photo: Jeff Chiu, AP)

The Pepper robot was manufactured by Foxconn in China but was promoted and sold around the world. Only about 27,000 units were ever produced during its six years in existence, according to Reuters.

Multilingual robot

Pepper interacts with guests at the Dentsu party during the Spikes Asia Festival of Creativity on September 10, 2015 in Singapore. (Photo: Charles Pertwee, Getty Images) Pepper interacts with guests at the Dentsu party during the Spikes Asia Festival of Creativity on September 10, 2015 in Singapore. (Photo: Charles Pertwee, Getty Images)

Pepper reportedly knew at least 15 languages and had advanced speech recognition, allowing you to “talk” with the robot in a natural style.

Robotic friend with a touchscreen display

Guests interact with Pepper the robot during the 2017 New Yorker TechFest at Cedar Lake on October 6, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo: Brian Ach/Getty Images for The New Yorker, Getty Images) Guests interact with Pepper the robot during the 2017 New Yorker TechFest at Cedar Lake on October 6, 2017 in New York City. (Photo: Brian Ach/Getty Images for The New Yorker, Getty Images)

While many humanoid robots of the past focused on a machine’s ability to pick things up, Pepper really only needed arms for gesturing. The touchscreen display delivered more information and was a useful input device, but it lacked the novelty of a robot butler handing you a drink, as just one example.

Pandemic support at hotels

Pepper and cleaning robot Whiz are seen during a demonstration at the entrance of a hotel for patients suffering mild symptoms of covid-19 in Tokyo, Japan on April 30, 2020. (Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi, Getty Images) Pepper and cleaning robot Whiz are seen during a demonstration at the entrance of a hotel for patients suffering mild symptoms of covid-19 in Tokyo, Japan on April 30, 2020. (Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi, Getty Images)

Pepper became theoretically more useful during the covid-19 pandemic, as the need to maintain social distancing between humans was necessary. But that fact made it particularly ironic that SoftBank halted production in August of 2020 — the height of the coronavirus pandemic in countries like the U.S. and UK.

Robot diplomacy, one handshake at a time

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is introduced to Pepper the Robot by participant Lilly Antonia on Girls' Day on April 26, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo: Adam Berry, Getty Images) German Chancellor Angela Merkel is introduced to Pepper the Robot by participant Lilly Antonia on Girls’ Day on April 26, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo: Adam Berry, Getty Images)

Remember when we said Pepper only needed arms for gesturing? That’s not entirely true. Pepper also shook hands.

Oui oui, Mr. President

French President Francois Hollande shakes hands with Pepper during his visit to the Viva technology event in Paris on June 30, 2016. (Photo: Stephane De Sakutin/AFP, Getty Images) French President Francois Hollande shakes hands with Pepper during his visit to the Viva technology event in Paris on June 30, 2016. (Photo: Stephane De Sakutin/AFP, Getty Images)

In fact, Pepper met plenty of world leaders over the years, shaking hands with people like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande. As we’ve pointed out before, shaking hands with a robot is a very weird thing to do.

Helping the elderly

An elderly resident looks to Pepper during a presentation of two robots at the August-Stunz-Altenzentrum senior care facility on November 28, 2018 in Frankfurt, Germany.  (Photo: Thomas Lohnes, Getty Images) An elderly resident looks to Pepper during a presentation of two robots at the August-Stunz-Altenzentrum senior care facility on November 28, 2018 in Frankfurt, Germany. (Photo: Thomas Lohnes, Getty Images)

The robot was promoted to businesses like nursing homes and elder care facilities, but Pepper was bad at the things older people need the most help with: Picking things up, reaching object from across the room, and help getting up from a sitting position.

Pepper also isn’t very cuddly, something that robotic pets seem much better suited for.

Restaurant robots to the rescue

An employee of sushi restaurant Hamazushi interacts with Pepper during a press preview in Saitama, Japan on February 2, 2017. (Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP, Getty Images) An employee of sushi restaurant Hamazushi interacts with Pepper during a press preview in Saitama, Japan on February 2, 2017. (Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP, Getty Images)

When used in a restaurant, Pepper could take your order or help you find a table. But restaurant robots had been tried before, especially in the 1980s, and fizzled out back then as well.

Pepper couldn’t do gymnastics

Pepper delivers information to passengers of the French railway company SNCF on March 2, 2016 at the Nort-sur-Erdre train station, one of three stations Pepper appeared in the Pays de la Loire region of France. (Photo: Loic Venance/AFP, Getty Images) Pepper delivers information to passengers of the French railway company SNCF on March 2, 2016 at the Nort-sur-Erdre train station, one of three stations Pepper appeared in the Pays de la Loire region of France. (Photo: Loic Venance/AFP, Getty Images)

Unlike some of the more agile robots in existence, like the Atlas robot from Boston Dynamic, Pepper couldn’t jump over obstacles or do backflips.

Pepper was more or less a desktop computer on wheels that could tell a joke. And while that could probably describe most robots of the past century, we really expected them to be doing much more useful tasks by now. We are living in the future, after all, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.

Pepper the museum guide

Neil deGrasse Tyson hugs Pepper at the Looking to the Next Frontier session during the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative's Annual Meeting at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers on September 28, 2015 in New York City. (Photo: JP Yim, Getty Images) Neil deGrasse Tyson hugs Pepper at the Looking to the Next Frontier session during the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative’s Annual Meeting at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers on September 28, 2015 in New York City. (Photo: JP Yim, Getty Images)

Pepper was also sold to museums to direct visitors and provide more information about exhibits. But conflict with SoftBank’s French business reportedly hampered the robot’s development.

SoftBank bought the French robotics company Aldebaran in 2012 and layoffs are expected to be deep. Roughly half of Aldebaran’s 330 staff will be cut in September, according to Reuters, and sales staff in the U.S. and UK have already seen major reductions.

Pepper was a novelty, not a necessity

SoftBank Corp's humanoid robots Pepper (white) and Boston Dynamics' robots SPOT (yellow) dance and sing before the Nippon Professional Baseball league match between SoftBank Hawks and Rakuten Golden Eagles in Fukuoka on July 10, 2020. (Photo: STR/JIJI press/AFP, Getty Images) SoftBank Corp’s humanoid robots Pepper (white) and Boston Dynamics’ robots SPOT (yellow) dance and sing before the Nippon Professional Baseball league match between SoftBank Hawks and Rakuten Golden Eagles in Fukuoka on July 10, 2020. (Photo: STR/JIJI press/AFP, Getty Images)

Ultimately, Pepper was a novelty that showed up at sports games and conventions. But it’s tough to build a large and profitable robotics business on that kind of novelty.

Goodbye, Pepper

Au revoir, Pepper. You had a short but largely dignified life. And you didn’t try to start the robot uprising — something for which we’ll be eternally grateful.