Shop assistants beware: robots are eyeing your jobs

Pepper the robot can advise customers and engage in conversation - a bit like Siri but with a touchscreen and movement

Designed as a shop assistant, Pepper can advise customers and engage in conversation

Designed as a shop assistant, Pepper can advise customers and engage in conversation


Pepper the robot kicked off the second day of the Machine Summit. The robot, short in stature with a glossy white chassis, is very cartoonish and non-threatening, which is probably the point. Unfortunately, the voice sounds like a creepy child. “Don’t you think perhaps we can be friends?” it asked.

When Julien Seret, business development director at Aldebaran Robotics comes on stage to chat with Pepper and it feels a bit like an upmarket ventriloquist act. However, there is a lot of complex machine learning, natural language processing and other forms of Artificial Intelligence behind its design.

Pepper is designed to be a shopping companion. It’s adorable and pretty good at processing speech. In fact, it’s a bit like Siri in terms of voice interactivity but with a touch screen for physical interaction. Additionally, it uses body language to engage the user on an emotional level, explained Seret.

The illusion of this real life Pixar character is broken when Pepper accidentally talks over Seret. This made the audience laugh a little, as though we were waiting for that moment when Pepper inevitably failed at the task of being human.

While operating in store, Seret said that Pepper records everything the customer says. This is stored in the cloud for further semantic analysis by the company in order to improve customer service. Pepper is, in essence, a physical manifestation of the personalised shopping experience.

The audience is given an example: “Pepper, I really like this dress. Can you tell me more about it,” to which Pepper replies with details not only on the dress size, shape, colour etc. but about the shopper’s body type and how the dress might fit and flatter, all delivered in the language you’d expect from a real life personal shopping assistant.

“Of course we’re not replacing people,” said Seret.

“We’re just just helping people to focus on what they do best while Pepper does all of the repetitive tasks. We see Pepper as a third channel [in the shopping experience].”

Given that Pepper can move about, it can also guide people to the right aisle while chatting, providing entertainment and giving useful information. As Seret said, this robot is a bit of a multitasker.

Members of the audience who expected something along the lines of the synths from television programme Humans will be disappointed but Seret points out that people can be very afraid of robots and Pepper is designed to be far from realistic, which avoids the Uncanny Valley - that icky feeling people get when something is a hyper realistic but is still not quite human.

Erica Young, advisor at Insight Robotics, added: “As robots becomes more human [LOOKING]and more realistic it becomes more demanding in terms of what you expect of it.

“Why create a situation where you’re setting it up for a potentially unsatisfactory interaction. It looks human but can’t do what a human does.”