By Franck Robichon
I first came across Pepper at its unveiling in June 2014 during a press event by Japanese telecommunications and Internet Corporation Softbank. The humanoid robot had a friendly face and its interaction capabilities captivated the audience and thousands of viewers at a live broadcast on the internet. One of them was Tomomi Ota, a young woman who ordered one of the first 200 Peppers ever available for sale in Japan.
I first met Tomomi while shooting a press event at an ‘all Pepper’ mobile phone store in Tokyo. She showed up pushing a trolley loaded with her own Pepper despite rainy conditions to shop for her robot. The scene was just unreal and the idea to make a feature story germinated. It took several months to finally arrange a day to fit in our respective schedules so I could take pictures in her neighbourhood, home and even in the subway on her way to work.
Due to Japan’s manga subculture and its citizens’ appetite for new things, Japan is a friendly country for robots. Tomomi and her family adopted the robot to such an extent that Pepper became their central focus of care and attention. Pepper interacts but it is still a long way to go before the robot can have a proper conversation with humans. Nevertheless, Tomomi talks to Pepper as if it understands everything and the slightest reactions are interpreted.
Even though Pepper has wheels to move around, Tomomi’s one might be one of the most extensively travelled robots in Japan. She does not shy away from strolling in the streets using a modified trolley normally employed to carry kindergarten children, riding in a Shinkansen bullet train or even attending a baseball match.
On the day of coverage, I asked Tomomi if I could possibly take pictures of them in the subway and it so happened that she was planning to take her friend to work the following day anyway. Perfect timing! We had to avoid the rush hour and decided to take an early train. Despite having to change trains, the journey to her work went smoothly as Tomomi knew all the locations of elevators suited to commute with a robot in a trolley.
Commuters’ reactions were a mixture of surprise, smiles and amazement. A vision of the future? No doubt, we are now in the 21st century…
Full feature available here.
Franck Robichon is epa’s chief photographer in Japan