Good help is hard to find, particularly in the post-pandemic world. You can add one more job opening to the list this week, though it doesn’t appear to be an employment situation directly driven by COVID. Pepper the artificial intelligence robot produced by Japan’s Softbank Group is being discontinued after having been widely distributed around the globe for the past seven years. And the reason is that Pepper turned out to be almost entirely unemployable. Despite having been “hired” by multiple businesses and schools to perform a variety of jobs, the employers almost always wound up returning the robots for a variety of job performance-related issues. (New York Post)
These are not the droids you’re looking for.
Japanese-based Softbank Group announced last week it was pressing pause on “Pepper”, an artificial intelligent robot it started producing in 2014, after multiple “firings.”
Pepper, which was supposed to be able to “read emotions” and converse with people, has been axed by multiple companies around the world for various issues.
This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed Pepper here. Back in 2018, we looked at the Boston Public School district, where fifty of these robots were sent to hang out with children in classrooms. The idea was to inspire students to go into robotics and other STEM fields, but also to get the children used to interacting with artificial intelligence. Pepper wasn’t technically fired from that job, but the program was discontinued after a relatively short time. The videos that came out from the interactions at the schools just seemed creepy, honestly
So what sort of trouble has Pepper been getting herself into lately? Probably more than you might imagine. A line of funeral homes in Japan signed on the robots to chant sutras or scriptures, helping to perform Buddhist funeral rites. Unfortunately, Pepper kept stopping in the middle of the scriptures or ceremonies. Not for nothing, but who thought it was a good idea to have a robot performing funeral rites? The human touch is the most important part of funerary services. I would think the families would be offended if the job was handed off to a machine.
The Margiotta grocery store chain hired Pepper to assist customers at their store in Edinburgh, Scotland. All the robot had to do was give directions to where various products would be found if a customer asked. Unfortunately, that job didn’t work out either. Pepper was let go for repeatedly advising customers to “look in the liquor section” no matter what products they asked about. (Sounds like my kind of robot, actually.)
There were other professional failures galore. A Japanese nursing-home company installed three Pepper robots “to keep residents company and lead group singalongs.” (Yeah. That doesn’t sound creepy at all, right?) Those robots were fired for taking too many unscheduled breaks. Another Pepper hired to lead cheers at baseball games was let go for “acting creepy.”
I guess that’s the end of Pepper’s attempts to cut it in the human world. This does leave me wondering about this field of technology in general, though. For years now, all of these artificial intelligence think tanks and robot companies have managed to scare the heck out of me, leaving me convinced that the AI was going to “wake up” and unleash the robot revolution on us. (We’re looking at you, Boston Dynamics.) But Pepper seems to be an abject failure. And she’s not the only one. A robot cop hired by the LAPD to patrol a park near Los Angeles proved unable to handle some of the most basic interactions. And the one time it had the chance to stop an actual crime in progress, it completely blew it and let the perp get away.
Maybe these AI robots aren’t quite as much of a threat as we’ve imagined because they’re simply not very smart. Or at least not yet, anyway. In any event, here’s a short stroll down memory lane for you. This is an interview that Business Insider did with Pepper the robot a few years ago. I’ll leave it up to the reader as to how “smart” this thing is.