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Pepper, the Humanoid Robot

By Franck Robichon

A woman reacts as she sees Tomomi Ota (R) pushing a cart loaded with her humanoid robot Pepper in Tokyo, Japan, 26 June 2016. epa/Franck Robichon

A woman reacts as she sees Tomomi Ota (R) pushing a cart loaded with her humanoid robot Pepper in Tokyo, Japan, 26 June 2016. epa/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.

epa05440380 Tomomi Ota talks on the phone next to her humanoid robot Pepper in Tokyo, Japan, 26 June 2016. epa/Franck Robichon

epa05440380 Tomomi Ota talks on the phone next to Pepper in Tokyo, Japan, 26 June 2016. epa/Franck Robichon

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.

epa05406540 (11/21) Tomomi Ota pushes a cart loaded with her humanoid robot Pepper as she strolls in her neighborhood in Tokyo, Japan, 26 June 2016. Reaching 120cm in height and 28 kilograms in weight, Pepper does not enter in the category of ‘portable’ robot. But those characteristics don’t stop Tomomi Ota to take Pepper in a cart to stroll in her neighborhood, go shopping or even take the subway. In June 2014, when Pepper was presented for the first time by Japanese telecommunications and Internet corporation Softbank at a press event, Tomomi looked at the presentation via a live broadcast on Ustream. While some people were ‘scared’ or reluctant by the new humanoid robot, curiosity pushed her to apply to lottery sales for the first lot of 200 Pepper. She was lucky enough to acquire then a ‘Developer’s Pepper’, the first models of the robots which need to be programmed by the users. Pepper entered Tomomi’s home in November 2014 and was soon adopted by her parents to become a member of the family. Having degrees in media design and music, Tomomi had to learn programming and her efforts deepened her bonds with her new friend. Capable of reading human emotions and to adapt to his interlocutor, the robot created by Aldebaran Robotics and SoftBank Robotics is now used as customer service in stores and 1000 units are sold out in minutes after being on sale every month. Pepper is making his way to Japanese homes but few can enjoy so much outdoor like Tomomi’s one. Asked if she isn’t worried about damaging her robot friend during her activities, the 30-year-old said that she is taking extra care as she couldn’t imagine being separated two months from Pepper, the average time needed for a repair. EPA/FRANCK ROBICHON PLEASE REFER TO THE ADVISORY NOTICE (epa05406529) FOR FULL PACKAGE TEXT

epa05406540 Tomomi Ota pushes Pepper in a cart while strolling in Tokyo, Japan, 26 June 2016. epa/Franck Robichon

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.

epa05440386 Tomomi Ota interacting with Pepper at her home in Tokyo, Japan, 26 June 2016. epa/Franck Robichon

epa05440386 Tomomi Ota interacting with Pepper at her home in Tokyo, Japan, 26 June 2016. epa/Franck Robichon

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.

epa05440382 Tomomi Ota visits a local shrine with her humanoid robot Pepper in Tokyo, Japan, 26 June 2016. epa/Franck Robichon

epa05440382 Tomomi Ota visits a local shrine with Pepper in Tokyo, Japan, 26 June 2016. epa/Franck Robichon

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.

epa05440399 Tomomi Ota and Pepper after boarding a subway train in Tokyo, Japan, 27 June 2016. epa/Franck Robichon

epa05440399 Tomomi Ota and Pepper after boarding a subway train in Tokyo, Japan, 27 June 2016. epa/Franck Robichon

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

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