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.
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
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.
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
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 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
Remember when we said Pepper only needed arms for gesturing? That’s not entirely true. Pepper also shook hands.
Oui oui, Mr. President
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
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
Pepper couldn’t do gymnastics
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
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
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.
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.