INTERVIEW with Shunji Mitsuyoshi from University of Tokyo

Unveiled by Japanese technology firm SoftBank in 2014 as the worldā€™s first robot capable of reading human emotions, Pepper is fast becoming a familiar sight at mobile phone shops, malls and bank branches across Japan. Pepper stands 121centimetres tall, weighs 29 kilograms and has four in-built microphones, two cameras and a depth sensor that enable it to capture human voices and facial expressions. It displays its own ā€œemotionsā€ through colours and gestures. With its ability to analyse voice tones and interact, Pepper symbolizes a new direction for the robotics industry. Its developers claim that ā€œempatheticā€ robots may revolutionizeĀ medical applications, information services and entertainment. Shunji Mitsuyoshi, the man who designed the ā€œemotional engineā€ driving Pepperā€™s
ā€œheartā€, explains what makes Pepper unique, what led to his collaboration with SoftBank and how robotics may continue to change the way we live.

What originally led to your work with SoftBank and the development of Pepper?

It all began by collaborating with my friendĀ Kiyoshi Oura, who presented our researchĀ on emotion recognition to Masayoshi Son,Ā the founder and chief executive of SoftBank.Ā Our fi rst breakthrough was the developmentĀ of Sensibility Technology (ST) in 1999; weĀ developed an algorithm for voice recognition,Ā which led to further research on how theĀ amygdala ā€” the part of the brain involved inĀ processing emotions ā€” is connected to theĀ central nervous system, the heart and vocal
cords. Th e next step was the development ofĀ our Mind Monitoring System (MIMOSYS)Ā technology in 2014, which enabled us toĀ monitor changes in mood through voiceĀ recognition applications. Th en in 2015, IĀ developed an ā€œemotional mapā€ based on myĀ research looking at how hormones aff ectĀ emotions. We were able to identify 223Ā emotions, which we classifi ed into four colours.
The development of Pepper was made possibleĀ through a combination of all three ā€“ ST,Ā MIMOSYS and the emotional map.

What was the goal of creating Pepper?

Th e idea was to develop a user-friendly robotĀ capable of responding to human emotions. MrĀ Son will often talk about the story of Astro BoyĀ (Tetsuwan Atomu), a popular manga hero inĀ Japan. Astro Boy is a humanoid robot capable ofĀ empathy. It can cheer us up when we are sad. ItĀ can help us by understanding human needs. InĀ a similar vein, we wanted to create a human-likeĀ robot, not a mindless or heartless machine

Can you describe what Pepper can do?

Currently, Pepper is capable of voice and faceĀ recognition and of interacting by providingĀ information and playing games. It has someĀ ability to pick out human emotions ā€”happiness, frustration, anger and sadnessā€“and toĀ respond accordingly. We want people to thinkĀ of Pepper as a friend rather than just a robot.
One of our long-term goals is to use Pepper inĀ health and social care. So, it may be possible forĀ Pepper to assist in the early detection of illnessesĀ or disorders such as dementia, heart attacks andĀ Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) throughĀ voice recognition.

In what way can Pepper ā€œlearnā€?

The next generation of humanoid robots willĀ focus on incorporating the concept of a ā€œvirtualĀ egoā€. If Pepper has its own sense of identity,Ā then it can really become a member of theĀ family. People will be able to ā€œraiseā€ PepperĀ like a child. It can then ā€œgrowā€ or ā€œlearnā€ basedĀ on communication. Itā€™s important to noteĀ that this is not the same as deep learning, anĀ altogether diff erent goal that other companiesĀ are pursuing. Instead, we envision cases whereĀ Pepper can ā€œlikeā€ or ā€œdislikeā€ someone based onĀ its own ā€œreasoningā€. Th e question of building inĀ ā€œmoralsā€ then becomes critical. Working withĀ researchers in South Korea, my team at theĀ University of Tokyo are now trying to uncoverĀ the physiological basis of morality, reasoning andĀ deduction in the human brain.

There has already been more thanĀ 10,000 Pepper robots sold in Japan, bothĀ for corporate and home use. Are thereĀ plans for Pepper to be available in otherĀ languages and in other countries?

We are focusing on making Pepper universal. InĀ order to do so, I am exploring languages otherĀ than Japanese. For example, in 2015 my teamĀ at the University of Tokyo started collaboratingĀ with a university in Romania. We wanted to learnĀ more about how the nervous system connectsĀ to voice and emotion in diff erent languages.Ā Romania is an interesting place to collectĀ voice samples because people in that countryĀ speak not only Romanian but also Hungarian,Ā German, Russian, Spanish and Turkish. We areĀ studying how the human voice and intonationĀ may be analysed to diagnose conditions such asĀ dementia, Alzheimerā€™s disease and Parkinsonā€™sĀ disease. In total, we have collected around 7,000Ā voice samples so far.

Romania is an interesting place to collectĀ voice samples because people in that countryĀ speak not only Romanian but also Hungarian,Ā German, Russian, Spanish and Turkish.

What other products are you nowĀ working on?

Based on the ā€œemotional mapā€ I have developed,Ā I am looking at developing other emotion-based technologies that can be used in cars or otherĀ everyday items and devices

Can you tell us more about SoftBankĀ World, to be held on 21ā€“22 July 2016 inĀ Tokyo, Japan?

Th is is an event for corporate users of SoftBankĀ in Japan and is made up of lectures fromĀ sponsorship partners and exhibitions. Th ereĀ are plans to unveil new technologies based onĀ emotion recognition that will have an impactĀ on peopleā€™s daily lives. We encourage everybodyĀ to see and experience these new robotĀ technologies for themselves. Visitors to SoftBankĀ World are in for a treat.

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