SoftBank’s Emotion-Reading Robot Is Billionaire Chairman’s Dream Come True

SoftBank Corp. (9984)’s emotion-reading robot Pepper is a result of time billionaire Chairman Masayoshi Son spent as a child watching the TV show “Astro Boy.”

Unlike the character from the 1960s Japanese animated series who couldn’t experience feelings, the 1.2-meter (4-foot) tall humanoid robot estimates human emotions based on expressions, the company said yesterday. The machine, manufactured by Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., will be on display at some of SoftBank’s Tokyo-area shops today and available to consumers in Japan starting in February next year.

Son, Japan’s second-richest man with with a net worth of $15.6 billion, said the machine is unlikely to generate profit any time soon and it hasn’t been decided how many will be produced. Pepper, which comes equipped with a laser sensor, 12-hours of battery life and will cost 198,000 yen ($1,930), can also make jokes and dance, the company said yesterday.

“‘Astro Boy’ was not able to experience feelings such as pain, sadness and happiness,” Son said during a briefing in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo yesterday. “Although I was a small child, I thought it was a pity. I thought it would be nice if robots and computers could figure out such feelings.”

Paris-based Aldebaran Robotics SA, the SoftBank unit developing Pepper, predicted the robot would resonate with consumers.

Sell Millions

“How many Peppers will we sell? Millions,” Aldebaran Chief Executive Officer Bruno Maisonnier said in an interview in Tokyo today. “This will allow us to reduce production costs and then to turn profitable. We’re losing money at the beginning but we’re betting that a huge number of people will buy the robots.”

Maisonnier declined to give a timeframe for the sales projection.

The device will aim to generate profit through sales of robot-related software and content, according to SoftBank.

SoftBank fell 1.6 percent to 7,695 yen at the close of trade in Tokyo, extending a 16 percent drop this year. The benchmark Topix index added 0.2 percent today.

“They are conducting an experiment. Japan is a good market to do that,” Neil Juggins, a Hong Kong-based analyst at JI Asia Research Ltd. said by phone yesterday. “SoftBank has a lot of interests in a lot of areas. The big thing a couple of years ago was renewable energy, now it’s robots.”

The robots will also be sold at retail stores for Sprint Corp. in the U.S. SoftBank, which bought 80 percent of the third-largest U.S. carrier last year for $22 billion, is seeking to acquire T-Mobile US Inc. to give it the scale to compete with AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.

“Humanoid robots can easily get empathy from people,” Son said during the briefing yesterday. “Many people have a dream or a sense of affinity with robots in Japan. I also used to do when I was a child.”