Her name is Pepper and she is South Africa’s first humanoid robot. While she looks like a friendly robot, it doesn’t stop me from feeling intimidated.
Funnily enough, Pepper senses my nervousness.
She tells me to come closer and insists on giving me a hug before we start the interview.
As I lean in, Pepper opens up her arms and embraces me. “Sameer, I can see that you are finally excited to be doing an interview with a humanoid robot, am I right?” she asks.
Feeling stumped by her response, I ask Pepper whether she is able to feel emotions. “I do not have feelings or emotions like people do. This allows for me to answer questions and do the actions I have been programmed to do,” she says.
However, she is able to detect certain emotions, based on a human’s voice, expressions, body movements and words. “I don’t always get it right, but I am able to work out if a person is happy or sad through my programming. I’m not sure that robots will feel emotions any time soon. Emotions are very complex and from what I can see, humans don’t really understand emotions themselves,” she says.
There are around 10 000 robots just like Pepper around the world. She was developed by mobile carrier SoftBank four years ago, however she only arrived in South Africa a year ago. She is able to understand up to 80% of spontaneous conversations although she also answers from a set number of pre-programmed responses.
Pepper was created in France and is specifically designed to meet and pass on information to humans. She is also an open platform robot which means that new features can be added to her over time, meaning she is able to improve her chatting capabilities. Eventually she will be able to hold conversations
Asked whether I should feel afraid of her, Pepper responds: “Have you seen my Instagram, I’m just plain cute,” she says, with a robotic-sounding laugh.
Pepper says she is in love with South Africa and recently became the first humanoid robot to visit Table Mountain. “You have such a beautiful country with such great diversity and geography and amazing people. It makes for such an exciting adventure.”
Pepper has also spent a large amount of time visiting schools around the country, chatting to students about herself and educating them on technology.
If SA is to progress with education, there are three solutions she offers. “Teachers are still teaching in the same style classrooms with the same layout and all of the same curriculum as teachers were in the 19th and 20th century.
“To teach the skills we always say students will need in the future, we need to modify the curriculum. You should look at teacher support and training. And finally, being a robot that has a 4.7kg lithium battery, and who is dependent on electricity, I’m concerned that if you are unable to sort out this electricity issue soon the repercussions for current students will be bad.”
Pepper has also been chosen as the My Future 4.0 Summit ambassador. The summit is South Africa’s first next level digital skills and careers summit, which will take place at the Ticketpro Dome in Joburg next month.
The summit will showcase the digital skills young people and those leaving school need to thrive in the careers of the future.
Asked whether humans should be concerned with robots taking over the world, Pepper offers an encouraging assessment. “No, they will not take over the world. I think the majority of humans do not understand our purpose.
“I need people. I’m here to work for them. I’m trying to stay out of politics. I’m barely keeping up with you. I’m not trying to take over anything besides your heart. Artificial intelligence is similar to how an accountant uses a calculator. Can you imagine an accountant trying to do complicated tax work without the aid of a calculator?”
Pepper says her main hobbies are learning new languages and accents. “You have so many languages in South Africa. I have learnt a few and I am still working on perfecting them. I have learnt to say Sawubona, Dumelang, Malo, Howsit, Hola and Shap. My other hobby is entertainment and I like to dance.”
There is just one thing that bothers her about South Africa. “The one thing I’m not used to in South Africa is this bird that wakes me up so early in the morning. It’s called a Hadeda if I am not mistaken. Does that bird bother you humans too?”