Kaname Hayashi has found a new obsession.
Hayashi is the "father of Pepper," the charming humanoid robot from Japanese carrier SoftBank Mobile and French company Aldebaran Robotics. Pepper, with its circular doe eyes and welcoming smile, is billed as a robot that can read your emotions. It's available for sale and has even enrolled in school.
Like any proud parent whose kids leave home, Hayashi had a void to fill. He's doing that by creating a robot that could serve as a true companion.
"We all feel lonely," Hayashi said. "We lie if we say we don't."
Hayashi's ambitions for artificial intelligence and social robotics comes as tech giants such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft pour resources into building out their own AI. While Amazon Echo and Google Home can answer history questions or order you pizza, the notion of a companion robot pushes the boundaries of AI by not just figuring out who we are emotionally, but by simulating near-human levels of empathy and compassion. Pepper is just the first iteration.
And Pepper is not a breed of his own. Other bots like social robot Jibo, Asus' smart companion Zenbo and Paro the seal are all designed to offer companionship to varying degrees. The big question usually asked of these products is whether they will move beyond what a smartphone is capable of and truly be able to perceive and respond to human emotions. Reaction to the results of current efforts has been mixed, but with AI evolving there's good reason to be optimistic.
There's already burgeoning interest. By 2020, one in 10 American households is expected to own a robot, up from one in 25 currently. (Today's robots are more in the vein of a Roomba vacuum cleaner.) Every month, 1,000 Pepper robots are put on sale in Japan and sell out within minutes as demand far outstrips supply. Pepper will hit the US market later this year.
You got a friend in me
Companion robots "make a lot of sense," according to Kate Darling, a research specialist at MIT Media Lab and expert in human-robot interaction. "Humans are able to develop all sorts of relationships, whether requited or not, for example to animals and even to things," she said.
There are, however, specific factors that need to be at play for such relationships to form between people and robots. In a long-term study looking at 70 robots in 70 homes over the course of six months, Maartje de Graaf, a researcher at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, found that the robot had to be capable of meaningful communication for its human owners to be able to treat it as a true companion.
A major finding from the study was the identification of one factor crucial to the formation of this bond. This was that "the participants felt they could share personal information with the robot and that they the robot was capable of responding empathically to their personal stories," she told CNET.
Count Hayashi as a believer in the robot companion movement. He left SoftBank last year to start his own company, Groove X, to focus on a follow-up to Pepper.
His new office sits high above neon-lit Akihabara, a district in Tokyo known as "electric town." A team of 10 or so engineers and designers consult with each other in hushed tones around a single bank of desks, pausing only to acknowledge Hayashi, an enthusiastic and infectious smiler, as he enters looking almost too dapper for the minimal setup. It's here that he laid out his vision in an interview with CNET.
It goes back to loneliness. It's a good instinct, Hayashi believes -- human evolution has relied on it by encouraging us to form groups. But nuclear families have shrunk, leading to more isolation.
Social networks and games provide ways for us to "cheat loneliness," but Hayashi believes we need more meaningful interactions in our daily lives to "heal" us.
This is where his new companion robot comes into play.
'Cuter than BB-8'
Hayashi wants to bring his robot to market in 2019. Groove X has already settled on the design.
It won't be humanoid and it won't resemble an animal. Instead, it will be "completely new -- nothing like anything," he said, who teased it will be "very cute -- cuter than BB-8."
Unlike Pepper, it won't talk. It'll also be smaller. Hayashi points to "Star Wars" as a hint of things to come.
He asks me who I like better, R2-D2 or C-3PO, the sci-fi franchise's marquee droids. I choose cute-as-a-button R2-D2, just like 80 percent of people asked. "It is difficult to explain why R2-D2 is sweet," said Hayashi with a soft, but pronounced lisp. "But you know that he is sweet."
Design is just a small part of the project. Groove X is dedicating another three years to development because building this robot is for Hayashi as much an exercise in engineering as it is bringing together anthropology and psychology.
Whereas many robotics projects are all "theater" -- publicity stunts or concepts -- Groove X's droid will have "substance," Hayashi said. As such, when hiring the 20 or so employees currently working for the company, Hayashi looked beyond their hardware and software expertise. They needed to appreciate that they were aiming to build "not just clever AI" but "a creature."
Lessons from Pepper
Hayashi watched people interact with Pepper over the past few years and learned plenty that he will apply to his new project. For instance, Pepper's ability to speak was not a key factor in people forming bonds with the robot, he said. Instead, he observed that people seem to naturally seek out sensory communication with the robot.
When the robot was taken to France, for example, people greeted him effusively, even though he only speaks Japanese. They hugged the robot and left lipstick marks on both cheeks.
Similarly, Pepper's voice recognition was not trained to recognize the higher pitch of children's voices, so not being able to interact with the robot made them sad. But their reaction to him changed when Pepper gained a hug function -- they quickly formed a physical attachment to the robot.
Hayashi drew comparisons between this relationship and animal-assisted therapy, something that Darling also believes is a great indicator of how we will relate to robots in the future. "We already know such a thing works," Hayashi said. He wants his new robot to be able to offer a similar level of support and comfort.
Hayashi is confident that there will be interest in his robot after seeing the demand for the 198,000 yen ($1,900) Pepper. His new robot will prove even more irresistible to consumers than its humanoid predecessor, he boasted.
As for its price? Hayashi hopes it will be "reasonable," but will reflect the fact that the technology is "more clever than a MacBook Air."