A personal robot called ‘Pepper’ who can read human emotions and assist in daily activities will be available for sale starting next year in Japan, which has arguably the highest proportion of elderly citizens in the world.

Robots in healthcare have eased the burden of caring for patients in hospitals and homes. Most of these robots are used in:

  • Surgeries
  • Communication
  • Remote monitoring
  • Handling repetitive “blue collar” jobs such as loading laundry, cleaning floors, or transporting medicine carts along hospital corridors

Others help patients perform activities of daily living, such as helping them to eat or ambulate safely.

The next logical step for scientists and engineers is to create machines that not only help out with basic tasks and act as service robots but can also be relatable to a certain degree because they are imbued with human-like characteristics.

In fast-graying Japan, a humanoid robot with unparalleled human-like qualities would soon be available in homes to care for the country’s large elderly population.

SoftBank, the telecommunications and Internet conglomerate, recently introduced a prototype robot nicknamed “Pepper”, which the company claims can express and learn human emotions. 

“People describe others as being robots because they have no emotions, no heart. For the first time in human history, we're giving a robot a heart, emotions,”

Masayoshi Son, chief executive officer, SoftBank, said during a presentation in Tokyo.

“Our aim is to develop affectionate robots that can make people smile,”

Standing waist-high and with gesticulating hands, the robot spoke to reporters in a “high-pitched, boyish voice,” according to a Reuters article.

The robot has a flat-panel display on its chest and weighs 28 kilograms. Aside from voice recognition software, it has an array of sensors:

“two touch sensors in its hands, three touch sensors on its head, and six laser sensors and three bumper sensors in its base”

As well as four microphones, two cameras, Wi-Fi and Ethernet networking features, according to this report

SoftBank said that Pepper uses an “emotional engine” that allows it to communicate with humans and to perform different assigned tasks.

The robot uses a cloud-based artificial intelligence system that could analyze expressions, gestures and voice tones of humans it interacts with, and then to form its own set of emotional responses based on accumulated data.

The company said personal health information gathered by Pepper would be safeguarded and would remain private.

The company envisions Pepper robots as assistants or even replacements for nurses, caregivers and home care companions for the country’s 65 and over population, which currently comprise 235 of the total population, a figure that is projected to balloon further to 38% by 2055, according to some estimates. 

SoftBank said that Taiwan’s Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. will be manufacturing the robots which will be made for sale commercially next year at 198,000 yen or $1,930.

In the meantime, the public can take a look and interact with prototypes that act as customer service representatives at two of SoftBank’s mobile phone stores in Japan.

The technology in making Pepper partly came from French robotics company Aldebaran, which SoftBank acquired a stake in back in 2012.

Alderaban earlier created the Nao humanoid, which it had demonstrated to be nimble enough to climb spiral staircases, charming enough to have a personality, and smart enough to carry on a conversation with humans.

Pepper is the latest in a long line of advanced personal robots being developed in Japan, one of the leading innovators in robotics technology.

Perhaps the most famous, the Asimo robot developed by Honda, was designed as a mobility assistant robot, and has the ability to recognize moving objects, sounds and faces, and be aware of its environment.

Personal robots are expected to be commonplace in Japan in the next several years, as the government grapples with a rising elderly population and a chronic labor shortage.

These humanoid robots could potentially appeal to households as a viable alternative to paid workers who care for elderly family members.  

The value of the country’s robotics industry is expected to more than triple to 2.85 trillion yen by 2020, according to a Japanese trade ministry report in 2013.  

Elsewhere, particularly in countries with advanced healthcare systems, the use of robots is expected to become an increasingly integral part in delivering technology-driven patient care.