Robot Makers Are Seeking New Beach-Head: From Factory Floor to Retail Store

Introduced two years ago in Japan and then followed by Europe, a new generation of robot is gradually being rolled out in stores and malls in the US. These new humanoid robots offer the potential to make doing business an easier and more enjoyable experience. At the moment more of an entertaining novelty, these machines could pose future risks to a whole class of retail jobs.

Developed by the robotics arm of Asian technology conglomerate SoftBank Group, their futuristic Pepper robot offers a detailed look at both the limits and potential of what a truly humanoid machine could be. Pepper is the brainchild of SoftBank founder and billionaire Masayoshi Son, a man who dreamed as a child of a robot capable of emotion. Pepper was hyped before its release as the first robot capable of just such a feat, as well as a potential complement, if not replacement, for a variety of jobs.

Although now seen by some observers as simply an expensive toy, Pepper is an impressive technological achievement. With expressive eyes, a cherubic voice and the ability to display a wide range of human-like body language, it successfully navigates the “uncanny valley,” the disturbing sense one gets when a robot appears too human. As SoftBank gears up to sell its humanoids in North America, two Bay Area shopping malls run by the Westfield Corporation and the Lowy Family are using the robots as mall ambassadors. They can say hello in six languages, direct shoppers to stores, and take surveys.

Currently totaling more than 10,000 units across Japan and Europe, these machines can be found in coffee shops, grocery stores, banks, railway stations and even on cruise lines. Peppers are accumulating a massive amount of data from their interactions with people. SoftBank is hoping to use this data to continue refining Pepper’s abilities, for instance by being able to recognize voice commands. SoftBank’s goal is to present an overall companionable presence that can do a wide range of tasks for both home and business uses.

While lacking in Pepper’s charm and ambition, the Lowebot is a new machine performing a similar role in a Lowe’s location in San Jose, California. The Lowebot is a boxy bot on wheels that has a detailed store inventory and can guide customers to any particular item.
For better or worse, these machines are continually being developed and refined and are here to stay.