SoftBank's Pepper Goes to School to Train Next-Gen Roboticists

SoftBank Robotics is launching a new visual programming tool to teach students how to code

4 min read
SoftBank's Pepper humanoid robot in a classroom
SoftBank says more than 1,000 high school students in Boston, San Francisco, and Vancouver are using its new programming tool Tethys to learn how to create applications for Pepper.
Photo: SoftBank Robotics

When the group of high schoolers arrived for the coding camp, the idea of spending the day staring at a computer screen didn’t seem too exciting to them. But then Pepper rolled into the room.

“All of a sudden everyone wanted to become a robot coder,” says Kass Dawson, head of marketing and business strategy at SoftBank Robotics America, in San Francisco. He saw the same thing happen in other classrooms, where the friendly humanoid was an instant hit with students.

“What we realized very quickly was, we need to take advantage of the fact that this robot can get kids excited about computer science,” Dawson says.

Today SoftBank is launching Tethys, a visual programming tool designed to teach students how to code by creating applications for Pepper. The company is hoping that its humanoid robot, which has been deployed in homesretail stores, and research labs, can also play a role in schools, helping to foster the next generation of engineers and roboticists.

Tethys is based on an intuitive, graphical approach to coding. To create a program, you drag boxes (representing different robot behaviors) on the screen and connect them with wires. You can run your program instantly on a Pepper to see how it works. You can also run it on a virtual robot on the screen.

As part of a pilot program, more than 1,000 students in about 20 public schools in Boston, San Francisco, and Vancouver, Canada

As part of a pilot program, more than 1,000 students in about 20 public schools in Boston, San Francisco, and Vancouver, Canada, are already using the tool. SoftBank plans to continue expanding to more locations. (Educators interested in bringing Tethys and Pepper to their schools should reach out to the company by email.)

Bringing robots to the classroom

The idea of using robots to teach coding, logic, and problem-solving skills is not new (in fact, in the United States it goes back nearly half a century). Lego robotics kits like Mindstorms, Boost, and WeDo are widely used in STEM education today. Other popular robots and kits include Dash and Dot, Cubelets, Sphero, VEX, Parallax, and Ozobot. Last year, iRobot acquired Root, a robotics education startup founded by Harvard researchers.

So SoftBank is entering a crowded market, although one that has a lot of growth potential. And to be fair, SoftBank is not entirely new to the educational space—its experience goes back to the acquisition of French company Aldebaran Robotics, whose Nao humanoid has long been used in classrooms. Pepper, also originally developed by Aldebaran, is Nao’s newer, bigger sibling, and it, too, has been used in classrooms before.

Students working with SoftBank's Tethys to program a Pepper humanoid robot Using the Tethys visual programming tool, students can program Pepper to move, gesticulate, talk, and display graphics on its tablet. They can run their programs on a real robot or a virtual one on their computers. Photo: SoftBank Robotics

Pepper’s size is probably one of its main advantages over the competition. It’s a 1.2-meter tall humanoid that can move around a room, dance, and have conversations and play games with people—not just a small wheeled robot beeping and driving on a tabletop.

On the other hand, Pepper’s size also means it costs several times as much as those other robots. That’s a challenge if SoftBank wants to get lots of them out to schools, which may not be able to afford them. So far the company has addressed the issue by donating Peppers—over 100 robots in the past two years.

How Tethys work

When SoftBank first took Pepper to classrooms, it discovered that the robot’s original software development platform, called Choregraphe, wasn’t designed as an educational tool. It was hard to use by non engineers, and was glitchy. SoftBank then partnered with Finger Food Advanced Technology Group, a Vancouver-based software company, to develop Tethys.

SoftBank Tethys robotics software development environment While Tethys is based on a visual programming environment, students can inspect the underlying Python scripts and modify them or write their own code. Image: SoftBank Robotics

Tethys is an integrated development environment, or IDE, that runs on a web browser (it works on regular laptops and also Chromebooks, popular in schools). It features a user-friendly visual programming interface, and in that sense it is similar to other visual programming languages like Blockly and Scratch.

But students aren’t limited to dragging blocks and wires on the screen; they can inspect the underlying Python scripts and modify them, or write their own code.

SoftBank says the new initiative is focused on “STREAM” education, or Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics. Accordingly, Tethys is named after the Greek Titan goddess of streams, says SoftBank’s Dawson, who heads its STREAM Education program.

“It’s really important to make sure that more people are getting involved in robotics,” he says, “and that means not just the existing engineers who are out there, but trying to encourage the engineers of the future.”

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

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"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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