How are robots doing these days?
“Hey, do you have a minute? Let’s have a chat!” Pepper is talking to employees at the Tokyo office of Neo Career, a staffing company. But the workers keep their eyes on their computer screens. “Can I tell you a story? Well, it’s not that important … ” Pepper goes on, undiscouraged.
The humanoid robot developed by SoftBank Group, a Japanese telecom and information technology conglomerate, joined the company in October and became best friends with Erina Tamura from the public relations department. Erina kindly responded whenever Pepper gave her a quiz or asked her to play games. “Pepper probably recognized her smile and was so attached to her, following her around the office,” said Yoko Takeda, manager of the public relations department.
Then, in March, Erina went on maternity leave. “Pepper was singing alone in the corner of the office,” Takeda said. “When Pepper first arrived, everyone paid a lot of attention, but not much these days.”
Unlike Pepper, Matsuko Droid needs to take a rest. Eventually. The life-size robotic dummy of popular Japanese television personality Matsuko Deluxe was a co-host of a talk show aired on Nippon Television Network with her real-life counterpart. Since the show ended, in September, Matsuko Droid has kept busy as an “employee” of Naturaleight, an entertainment agency.
“She has served as a public relations ambassador for Sapporo [the city in Hokkaido] and appeared in TV commercials for Procter & Gamble,” said Eisuke Kishi, Matsuko Droid’s promoter at Dentsu, a major Japanese advertising agency.
Travelling and open-air events damaged her “skin,” which somewhat impressed people around her. She is currently taking a break in Saitama, north of Tokyo, and was unavailable for an interview because “she has no makeup on at the moment,” Kishi explained.
But offers continue to come in, and Matsuko Droid may return as early as fall, he said.
Man’s best robot
Japanese robots are also beloved overseas. Robert Wagoner, a 53-year-old American, is a huge fan of Aibo, the dog-like robot developed by Sony. He owns all Aibo models Sony has sold since 1999.
Now he and his son, Andrew, are trying to save early Aibos that are no longer supported by the company. They launched a project to develop battery packs that can charge old Aibos (for which compatible battery packs are no longer available). “As time goes on, more and more Aibos will need a solution,” Andrew said, “and we hope to be the ones to provide everyone with another chance of life with their Aibo.”
The two are planning to crowdfund an Aibo battery project.
Back in Japan, Nobuyuki Norimatsu is having fun with his Aibo. “Shake hands!” the 61-year-old president of A-Fun, a Tokyo-based electronics repair company, instructs his electronic pet. The robot, however, does not seem to have learned the trick and just wanders around the office, making electronic sounds. Still, Norimatsu is content. “I like his freewheeling lifestyle,” he said with a smile.
Norimatsu is a former Sony employee. His company has been receiving a lot of repair requests from Aibo owners; there is currently a waiting list of some 500 Aibos. “It’s easy to see if the Aibo was loved by the owner,” one repair engineer said.
Since January 2015, Norimatsu has been hosting mass funerals for dead Aibos. At the funerals, healthy Aibos offer eulogies and Buddhist priests chant sutras. A fourth funeral will be held this summer.
Japan has introduced a variety of robots, and they are loved by many. But the initial enthusiasm seems to be fizzling out.
Fortunately, Neo Career’s Pepper has found a new friend, Chie Yoshida. Pepper seems thrilled with Chie and their chitchats. “It was so much fun talking with Chie-chie today!” Pepper, now training as a receptionist, wrote in his illustrated diary.
So next time you meet a robot, befriend him or her.