Reuters is reporting that SoftBank stopped manufacturing Pepper robots at some point last year due to low demand, and by September, will cut about half of the 330 positions at SoftBank Robotics Europe in France. Most of the positions will be in Q&A, sales, and service, which hopefully leaves SoftBank Robotics’ research and development group mostly intact. But the cuts reflect poor long-term sales, with SoftBank Robotics Europe having lost over 100 million Euros in the past three years, according to French business news site JDN. Speaking with Nikkei, SoftBank said that this doesn’t actually mean a permanent end for Pepper, and that they “plan to resume production if demand recovers.” But things aren’t looking good.
Reuters says that “only” 27,000 Peppers were produced, but that sure seems like a lot of Peppers to me. Perhaps too many—a huge number of Peppers were used by SoftBank itself in its retail stores, and a hundred at once were turned into a cheerleading squad for the SoftBank Hawks baseball team because of the pandemic. There’s nothing wrong with either of those things, but it’s hard to use them to gauge how successful Pepper has actually been.
I won’t try to argue that Pepper would necessarily have been commercially viable in the long(er) term, since it’s a very capable robot in some ways, but not very capable in others. For example, Pepper has arms and hands with individually articulated fingers, but the robot can’t actually do much in the way of useful grasping or manipulation. SoftBank positioned Pepper as a robot that can attract attention and provide useful, socially interactive information in public places. Besides SoftBank’s own stores, Peppers have been used in banks, malls, airports, and other places of that nature. A lot of what Pepper seems to have uniquely offered was novelty, though, which ultimately may not be sustainable for a commercial robot, because at some point, the novelty just wears off and you’re basically left with a very cool looking (but expensive) kiosk.
Having said all that, the sheer number of Peppers that SoftBank put out in the world could be one of the most significant impacts that the robot has had. The fact that Pepper was able to successfully operate for long enough, and in enough places, that it even had a chance to stop becoming novel and instead become normal is an enormous achievement for Pepper specifically as well as for social robots more broadly. Angelica Lim, who worked with Pepper at SoftBank Robotics Europe for three years before founding the Rosie Lab at SFU, shared some perspective with us on this:
There has never been a robot with the ambition of Pepper. Its mission was huge—be adaptable and robust to different purposes and locations: loud sushi shops, quiet banks, and hospitals that change from hour to hour. Compare that with Alexa which has a pretty stable and quiet environment—the home. On top of that, the robot needed to respond to different ages, cultures, countries and languages. The only thing I can think of that comes close is the smartphone, and the expectation for it is much lower compared to the humanoid Pepper. Ten years ago, it was unthinkable that we could leave a robot on “in the wild” for days, weeks, months and years, and yet Pepper did it thanks to the team at SoftBank Robotics.
Peppers are still being used in education today, from elementary schools and high schools to research labs in North America, Asia and Europe. The next generation will grow up programming these, like they did with the Apple personal computer. I’m confident it’s just the next step to technology that adapts to us as humans rather than the other way around.
Pepper has been an amazing platform for HRI research as well as for STEM education more broadly, and our hope is that Pepper will continue to be impactful in those ways, whether or not any more of these robots are ever made. We also hope that SoftBank does whatever is necessary to make sure that Peppers remain useful and accessible well into the future in both software and hardware. But perhaps we’re being too pessimistic here—this is certainly not good news, but despite how it looks we don’t know for sure that it’s catastrophic for Pepper. All we can do is wait and see what happens at SoftBank Robotics Europe over the next six months, and hope that Pepper continues to get the support that it deserves.