clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Malls are trying to use humanoid robots to get shoppers back from the internet

But SoftBank’s android isn’t very useful.


SoftBank has been talking about bringing its humanoid robot, Pepper, to American markets for months, but until today, Pepper was only a sideshow demonstration at conferences.

Now the robot is ready to roll. For the first extended time in the U.S., shoppers at the Westfield Malls in San Francisco and Santa Clara, Calif., can meet the four-foot-tall roving android, where it will be working for the next three months. Shoppers at b8ta, a Palo Alto tech store, had a week to meet Pepper back in August.


SoftBank’s humanoid is pretty impressive, even if it’s not all that useful. Wielding a tablet on its chest to help answer questions, right now Pepper is best at simple customer service. It can give directions or help figure out the price of something, but it can’t grab an item off the shelf — despite having five-fingered hands and packing 20 motors throughout its short frame.

Pepper stands four feet tall, with two arms and a head, like a human. Talking to Pepper feels like talking to a small child. And with the help of facial recognition technology, the robot can actually respond to facial expressions; its creators claim it can tell if you’re happy or sad, and can tell by the tone of your voice if there’s a problem.

While SoftBank and IBM made a big deal of their partnership to pair Pepper with IBM’s Watson, the natural-language AI that played against two human “Jeopardy” winners in 2011 and won, these specific models will only use SoftBank’s AI.

Right now, there are more than 7,000 Peppers in retail settings and homes across Japan.

Bay Area holiday shoppers should expect Pepper to primarily entertain, as the advanced robot feels more like a last-ditch effort to court shoppers back into brick-and-mortar stores as online sales continue to rise.

Watch Pepper greet a houseguest in this Japanese advertisement from SoftBank:

Update: This post has been updated to indicate that the specific robots in the Westfield mall pilots are not programed with IBM Watson.

This article originally appeared on