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Pepper robot remains alive and well, says Japan's SoftBank

If anything, the need for social distancing during the covid-19 pandemic has boosted demand for robots like Pepper

FILE PHOTO: French robot Pepper, detecting whether people are wearing face masks and if not, instructs them to wear them, is displayed at French robotics developer SoftBank Robotics in Paris as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues to spread out across France, September 8, 2020. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes/File Photo (REUTERS)

Japanese technology company SoftBank denies it’s pulling the plug on its friendly, talking, bubble-headed Pepper robot.

“There is absolutely no change to our Pepper business,” SoftBank Robotics Corp. spokesperson Ai Kitamura said Wednesday.

Pepper, introduced seven years ago, is centered around a rentals business, and production is regularly adjusted, the Tokyo-based company said. While production was halted temporarily, Kitamura denied reports that set off speculation Pepper might be “killed."

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The company acknowledged the contracts of 330 workers at the Paris division of SoftBank Robotics were being reviewed, but the move was routine and did not spell a death knell for Pepper.

If anything, the need for social distancing during the pandemic has boosted demand for robots like Pepper, which sometimes is used to take people’s temperatures in stores.

This file photo taken on May 1, 2020 shows Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike looking at a greeting robot called Pepper as she visits a hotel during the first day the building is used as a new medical lodging facility to accommodate COVID-19 coronavirus patients with mild symptoms in Tokyo.
This file photo taken on May 1, 2020 shows Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike looking at a greeting robot called Pepper as she visits a hotel during the first day the building is used as a new medical lodging facility to accommodate COVID-19 coronavirus patients with mild symptoms in Tokyo. (AFP)

Pepper robots, which have expressive hands but move around on wheels, have been cheering and dancing in the stands for the home games of the SoftBank Hawks Japanese professional baseball team in Fukuoka, southwestern Japan.

And Pepper's latest gig involves computer programming education in Japanese schools.

Robotics technology is widely used in manufacturing production lines and the transport of goods around the world. But SoftBank Group Corp. founder and chief Masayoshi Son and other experts say Japanese have a soft spot for robots like Pepper that look somewhat human and sometimes appear to show emotion.

Kitamura said the outpouring of reaction from Pepper fans was appreciated, and showed it has become a beloved icon.

“So many people said they would be sad if Pepper is gone,” she told AP.

Earlier this year, Hanson Robotics, the Hong Kong team behind celebrity humanoid robot Sophia, unveiled a new prototype, Grace, which was targeted at the healthcare market and designed to interact with the elderly and those isolated by the covid-19 pandemic. "A human-like appearance facilitates trust and natural engagement because we are wired for human face-to-face interactions," the company's founder David Hanson said in a Reuters report.

At a hospital in Munich, Germany, Franzi, a cleaning robot designed by a Singapore company, not only helped in keeping the floors clean but also interacted with staff and patients, dishing out German rap and pop songs.

(With inputs from the Associated Press)

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