Pepper is Southend Borough Council’s latest employee, helping the town’s citizens communicate and engage with the council better.

The robot has been programmed to speak 12 languages and uses machine learning to communicate with people it recognises based on previous conversations. He understands emotion, meaning he’s going to fit perfectly into his role of engaging with the public.

Southend Council’s equipment manager Phil Walker is developing a memory game for some of the town’s older citizens and here are also plans to offer contextual-based activities to the people of Southend. For example, if an older group of people is teaching children how to knit, Pepper could show them videos to connect with them in a way they understand – through technology.

However, the council’s director of adult care Sharon Houlden says there have been concerns introducing a robot to engage with residents.

“I recognise that some staff will be concerned about the implications of a Pepper-like creature,” Houlden said. “There are caveats around him, or anything like him, doing things like personal care. We’re not advocating that he would take the place of any commissioned service we provide.

“We have so much feedback from staff – and it is the national debate around social care – that people cannot do what they came into the profession to do. For me, this is largely where Pepper will come in; he’ll be able to do things that will free us up to do more of the direct work – possibly in ways that we can’t even visualise yet.”

23/12/2017: Pepper starts earning its founders money

One of the first sophisticated humanoid robots – Pepper – has started earning its founders an income as its talents have developed to suit more applications.

Softbank explained it has sold more than 10,000 of the robots to companies wanting to offer better customer service to  consumers, whether in restaurants, shops or bars. They are also being snapped up to assist humans in sales, marketing and customer service roles because they are automated, but offer more human-like interaction than other solutions.

For example, Nescafe has bought a fleet of the robots to help it sell its coffee machines, while pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly is using the robots to help it identify patients with osteoporosis-related bone fractures.

“In the first phase customers were more like vision dreamers,” said Kenichi Yoshida, who has been leading SoftBank’s robotics project since its initiation. “Now we are shifting to real customers . . . and also want a return on investment.”

28/01/2016: Pepper Robot will staff a Japanese phone shop

A Japanese mobile phone carrier has announced it plans to staff one of its stores with the Pepper Robot, taking automation in retail to the next level.

The robots will act as customer service assistants at a Softbank store in Tokyo, helping people sign up to new contracts and make purchase decisions based upon their needs. They will also be able to have natural conversation with customers, including things like asking how their day is going.

“I don’t know how this will turn out, but it should be a quite interesting experiment,” said SoftBank CEO Ken Miyauchi at the Pepper World exhibition.

He explained that five or six of the robots will be deployed in the store, meaning customers hopefully won’t be swamped by over-zealous assistants, but it will free up human staff to carry out other duties instore and they will also check the identification of customers, which is something Pepper can’t currently do.

Pepper was announced in 2015 and although the humanoid robot has been used for a number of commercial applications including at banks and at car company Nissan, this is the first time it has been used by a technology company.

If the trials work, Softbank will roll out Pepper in more of its stores around the country, in the hope they will start providing higher levels of customer service than is currently available by manned stores. However, the company said it doesn’t expect to start making a profit from the robots for the next few years.

“I think this year will be the beginning of the smartrobot era for corporate (customers),” Miyauchi finished.