Robots have been working at factories, hospitals, schools—and on April 30, 2016, a "handful" of robots named Pepper will join Costa Cruises, a branch of Carnival, as the newest crew members.
Pepper is a 4-foot humanoid robot built by Aldebaran, a SoftBank company based in Paris, that is designed to read human emotions. While it is not the first robot seen on a cruise—there have been robo-bartenders, and a small robot named Mel was used at Costa for entertainment—it is the first to interact with vacationers in a broader way, providing directions, information about destinations, entertainment, and general assistance.
Rahul Chakkara, Chief Digital Officer at Costa, has been charged with improving the customer experience through digital engagement. "There are thousands of interactions between our customers and our crew every hour," said Chakkara. "And we realized that our customer habits were changing significantly, and we needed to respond."
"In Europe, you have the additional complexity of these interactions happening in different languages," said Chakkara—so it helps that Pepper is trilingual, speaking English, German, and Italian, with the potential to tack on additional languages later on. "The thinking was, could we bring something to complement and enhance interaction and help our customers a bit more? We looked at Pepper and said this could be something quite interesting to help us help our customers along with our crew."
Pepper has been referred to as both a "he" and a "she," but Chakkara said there's no clear assigned gender. "It's possibly the biggest, most unresolved question that we have," he said. "We were initially thinking about deciding a name, a sex, et cetera. Then we decided to let the customers select the sex, and we'll see what happens."
So Pepper will have a neutral voice by default, which customers can adjust.
Pepper, Chakkara said, is uniquely suited for the task of engaging customers. While most other robots are built for repetitive chores, he said, "Pepper has been designed as a humanoid robot that actually responds to people's tone of voice and the way they're speaking. They're more suited for the service area and a labor-intensive area.
"This is not just a robotic arm selling drinks," said Chakkara. "We see Pepper as a full crew member."
Dr. Joanne Pransky, self-dubbed the "world's first robot psychologist," sees this as a great opportunity for Pepper to learn new skills. "I think this is an excellent use for Pepper—to be in a controlled environment, learning and interacting with humans," Pransky said. (This is in contrast to an uncontrolled environment, which led to the untimely demise of hitchBOT, a robot that hitchhiked through Canada, Europe, and parts of the US.)
"By being exposed to members of various cultural societies, this will greatly help to further develop Pepper's 'emotional' skills," said Pransky. "These are all very important and positive steps for Pepper's proper evolution."
It's a bit of an experiment, and Chakkara acknowledged, as well, that they plan to use the information gained through the interactions to make improvements.
But while there are many potential benefits for customers and crew members in having Pepper on board, it's important to acknowledge potential security concerns that could arise from this Wi-Fi-enabled employee. How will conversations be recorded, for instance? Will Pepper be listening in on conversations? There are still no clear answers.
- Is the world ready for a robot psychiatrist? A conversation with Joanne Pransky (TechRepublic)
- Why robots still need us: David A. Mindell debunks theory of complete autonomy (TechRepublic)
- Softbank, Aldebaran launch Pepper, an emotional robot (ZDNet)
- Emotional robot Pepper goes on sale, first run sells out (ZDNet)
- Why China is scooping up robots from Rethink Robotics to solve its manufacturing problem (TechRepublic)
Hope Reese has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, KY. Her writing has been featured in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Undark Magazine, VICE, Vox, and other publications.