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It’s happening: ‘Pepper’ robot gains emotional intelligence

Last week we weighed in on the rise of robotica aka sexbots, noting that improvements in emotion and speech recognition would likely spur development in this field. Now a new offering from Softbank promises to be just such a game changer, equipping robots with the technology necessary to interact with humans in a social settings.  The robot is called Pepper, and it is being launched at an exorbitant cost by its makers Softbank and Aldabaran.

Pepper is being billed as the first “emotionally intelligent” robot. While it can’t wash your floors or take out the trash, it may just decompress your next domestic row with a witty remark or well-timed turn of phrase. It accomplishes such feats through the use of novel emotion recognition techniques. Emotion recognition may seem like a strange, and perhaps unnecessary, skill for a robot. However, it will be a crucial one if machines are ever able to make the leap from the factory worker to domestic caregiver.

Even in humans, emotion recognition can be devilishly difficult to achieve. Those afflicted with autism represent a portion of humanity that has been referred to as “emotion-blind” due to the difficulty they have in reading expressions.  In many ways, robots have hitherto occupied similar territory. While Softbank hasn’t revealed the exact proprietary algorithms used to achieve emotion recognition, the smart money is on some form of deep neural network.

To date, most attempts at emotion recognition have employed a branch of artificial intelligence called machine learning, in which training data, most often labeled, is fed into an algorithm that uses statistical techniques to “recognize” characteristics that set the examples apart. It’s likely that Pepper uses a variation on this, employing algorithms trained on thousands of labeled photographs or videos to learn what combination of pixels represent a smiling face versus a startled or angry one.

Pepper is also connected to the cloud, feeding data from its sensors to server clusters, where the lion’s share of processing will take place.  This should allow their emotion recognition algorithms to improve over time, as repeated use provides fresh training examples. A similar method enabled Google’s speech recognition system to overtake so many others in the field. Every time someone uses the system and corrects a misapprehended word, they provide a new training example for the AI to improve its performance. In the case of a massive search system like Google’s, training examples add up very quickly.

This may explain why Softbank is willing to go ahead with the launch of Pepper despite the financials indicating it will be a loss-making venture. If rather than optimizing profit, they are using Pepper as a means towards perfecting emotion recognition, than this may be part of a larger play to gain superior intellectual property. If that’s the case, then it probably won’t be long before we see other tech giants wading into the arena, offering new and competitive variations on Pepper.

While it may seem strange to think of our emotions as being a lucrative commodity, commanding millions of tech dollars and vied for by sleek-looking robots, such a reality could well be in store.

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My name is Sayed Ahmadreza Razian and I am a graduate of the master degree in Artificial intelligence .
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Related topics such as image processing, machine vision, virtual reality, machine learning, data mining, and monitoring systems are my research interests, and I intend to pursue a PhD in one of these fields.

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