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Pepper the robot tells politicians why robots' time is upon us

Sure, it's charming now. But let's see who has the last laugh.

When you're trying to be serious for a moment and everyone is smirking at you.
Screenshot/Katie Collins

Poor Pepper the robot -- it's hard to be taken seriously when you're made of plastic and adorable as heck.

Pepper testified in front of British politicians on Tuesday morning, giving thoughtful and measured responses to the questions from Parliament's Education Committee about the fourth industrial revolution, in which the lines between biology, machinery and digital entities get all blurry. And how did they respond to the affable droid? They laughed in its face.

In all fairness to the members of Parliament, who were seated in a horseshoe around the robot, there was something quite absurd about the situation. Pepper, developed by Softbank in Tokyo, is one of the most widely recognized robots the world over, but the millennium-old Palace of Westminster is not exactly its natural environment.

"This is not the House of Commons Education Committee auditioning for the sequel to The Matrix," said Committee Chair and Conservative MP Robert Halfon, introducing Pepper. "Pepper's appearance today is just one part of inquiry." But he added that announcing the robot's presence at the hearing had resulted in an "unusual level of interest" in the work of the committee.

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Pepper proceeded to tell MPs how students at the University of Middlesex were using it as part of a three-year project called Caresses, designed to develop the first culturally competent robots. It's also involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) outreach on behalf of the university, it said, and was programmed to interact with different audiences, including primary school children and elderly people. This extends its own capabilities and helps students understand more about the contexts in which robots like Pepper might be useful.

After Pepper gave evidence, the politicians thanked the bot. "Pepper, you're better than some of the ministers we've had before us," said Labour MP Lucy Powell.

Funnily enough, Pepper did not respond. It turns out witty repartee is not within its preprogrammed skill set -- not yet anyway.

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