'Hi, I'm Pepper' - first humanoid robot in SA gently introduces herself

At your next hotel check-in, you might just be assisted by a robot. 

Well, perhaps not quite yet, but the first humanoid robot in South Africa is an indicator of the capability of artificial intelligence (AI).

Pepper, a humanoid chat robot was recently unveiled at Nedbank's digital-branch, the NZone, at the Gautrain station in Sandton.

Its main role is to allay Terminator-phobia of robots in customer-facing positions.

"Humanoid robots are also [being] implemented to replace existing technologies, such as touch screen information kiosks. So robots will be able to support front end meet and greet jobs like giving information, taking an order or booking a taxi or hotel," Scott Giles, managing director of deftech told News24.

Robot infancy

Built by Aldebaran with funding from SoftBank, Pepper has multiple sensors and deftech imported the robot to SA.

Unlike the robots in heavy manufacturing, Pepper and robots like it are tackling what is being described as Industry 4.0, as companies shift to digital solutions and the Internet of Things.

There are demonstration robots, which operate in retail stores and interact with customers by providing a full inventory of stock. They are also able to place orders and capture delivery details while navigating the store.

But robotic technology is still in its infancy despite impressively capable industrial robots, said Giles.

"There is a big difference between automation, bots and robots being used in the workplace to make life and processes more efficient.

"With regard to robots – we get various types of robots, if we look at the manufacturing sector, robots have replaced jobs for a number of reasons – safety, efficiency, production levels and yes, cost to company."

Japan is the global leader in terms of the application of robotic technology and many humanoid Japanese robots, such as Asimo, have been touted as next generation carers for humans – especially as Japanese society ages.

Beyond humanoid, Japanese companies have also demonstrated robot chairs to help with elderly mobility as well as household cleaning robots that navigate and plug themselves into charging points.

AI laws

Most of these technologies rely on data connectivity to integrate functions and interact with, or be controlled by, mobile devices.

This principle could be an important boost for company efficiency.

"Artificial intelligence as it stands today, is focused around data collection and use, with the Internet of Things making our everyday devices into a source of raw data for analytics to generate business insight, artificial intelligence is there to make analytics more productive and efficient in the workplace," said Giles.

But robots won't be coming for your job anytime soon.

Giles said local laws do not yet anticipate an AI machine and education is lacking among workers about the potential impact of these robots.

"As Pepper is the first humanoid robot in South Africa, we would love to start those discussions pertaining to her specifically, we are aware that these conversations are happening regarding AI around the world and in South Africa. Some of the biggest advocates for frameworks and laws such as Elon Musk are pushing this agenda daily and I am sure we will follow suit thereafter."

He also advised schools and institutions of higher learning to expose students to robotics and programming and for companies to roll them out in a non-threatening manner.

"With any industrial revolution, there is the opportunity for new job sets and skills to emerge. Robots are no exception. We need to be looking at integrating these skills in our schooling system and starting to introduce coding and robotics to children as young as five years old."

Struggles

Some companies have struggled with AI robots.

Security robots such as Knightscope's K5 unit fell into a mall fountain and there have been incidents of robots knocking into objects and people.

Uber's self-driving car recently killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg who crossed the street, despite the sensors detecting that she was in front of the vehicle.

But there was no need to panic about AI in SA yet, Giles said.

"Firstly, we are a long way off a fully AI robot. The capabilities of Pepper with regard to AI is extremely small; her function is to communicate with you in the most natural and intuitive way. In order for us to have laws around AI we would need to have an ethics framework with regard to AI."

In Africa, robotics has a long way to go with only 1% of the world's robots in the continent, compared to about 30% in Japan.

But it's not cheap to have a robot: Pepper's cost comes in at about R500 000, but that's still cheaper than Asimo, which carries a cool $2.5m price tag.

* Pepper will be at Sustainability Week, this week at the CSIR ICC in Tshwane


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