Last year, when Softbank unveiled its child-like robot “with a heart”, named Pepper; it became an instant talk of the town, not just among geeks, but also general public. Now Pepper is all set to make an entry into the global market as Softbank’s robotic arm (“SBRH”) has landed $118 million each, in funding from Alibaba Group Holding Limited and Foxconn Technology Group (“Foxconn”).
This fresh capital will primarily be used for further development of Pepper, and SBRH in general. And while this tie-up is critical for the Japanese giant’s robotic progress, it is unique in itself considering the geo-political situation between China and Japan.
This announcement, made by the three groups together, would result into Softbank sharing 60 % ownership ratio and Alibaba and Foxconn each holding ownership stakes of 20%.
Masayoshi Son, Chairman & CEO of SoftBank, said in a prepared statement,
I am very excited that we will partner with Alibaba and Foxconn, and challenge to go global with our robotics business, including Pepper, as a first step to realize our vision. To bring more smiles to people around the world, we will aim to be the No.1 robotics company.
In addition to it, the other founders of the alliance also echoed the views of Son viewing the investment about robotics in general and not just Pepper. Alibaba founder Jack Ma remarked
Robotics will become a critical field that catalyzes technological breakthroughs in numerous sectors such as healthcare, public services, research and at home. Our partnership with SoftBank and Foxconn combines the best hardware and software talent in the industry to pave the way for robotics research and development.
Hardware manufacturer Foxconn, which is also a partner manufacturer of Pepper, has invested quite heavily in robotics, to automate large parts of Foxconn’s production processes and has even partnered with Google to work in robotics field.
Terry Gou, Founder and CEO of Foxconn Technology Group, said
Foxconn is pleased to be partnering with SoftBank and Alibaba as part of our effort to drive the advancement of robotics engineering and as a leading global technology company, Foxconn is committed to investing in innovation that enables us to deliver cutting-edge solutions to our customers and that supports our goal of leveraging technology to bring greater convenience to the lives of consumers around the world.
Softbank, apart from its robotics division, has recently been quite active in its investments especially in the ecommerce segment across Asia and is looking forward to the expertise of its partners in strategy for global markets and networks for its robotic division. This startegy advice will especially be beneficial for developing Pepper further as a business bot and for other fields.
Pepper, which was unveiled last year in June is also going on sale this Saturday in Japan as a household robot. During a press conference in Maihama earlier, near Tokyo, the robot (48 inch tall and weighing 28 kilogram) which has no legs and moves on wheels, was shown to reporters and guests where it danced, sang a birthday song and demonstrated how it could record family life in photos, and serve as a companion.
It appeared to respond with joy when it was praised or stroked and even carried on a realistic conversation. When an actor showered it with praise, it responded with a childlike voice and peered into the actor’s face: “Please say more,” and, “Really?”
According to Son, the robot will develop its own personality of sorts, depending on how people interact with it. Pepper can remember faces and is programmed to be happy when given attention but becomes depressed when it’s not. It will also cheer up sad people and try to mitigate suffering, he said.
Pepper has been in development since 2012, when Softbank paid an estimated $100 million for a majority stake in French robotics firm Alderbaran. It was unveiled in June last year and designed to not only recognize human emotions but react with simulations of anger, joy and irritation.
SoftBank has made 1,000 models available for early adoption consumers who have to shell out a hefty 198,000 JPY (approximately $1,600) to put the humanoid in their home subjected to a monthly service fees of up to 24,600 JPY ($200) over the course of a three-year contract.
Softbank will also make Pepper available for commercial uses from the fall, including renting out the robot for 1,500 yen ($12) an hour to retailers and companies for their reception desks.