Foxconn, Alibaba join SoftBank in global robotics push

SoftBank's Pepper robot gets 'emotions' with consumer launch as sales outside Japan are planned

From left to right, Foxconn Technology Group CEO Terry Gou, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son and Alibaba founder Jack Ma pose with household communications robot Pepper at Maihama, Chiba, June 18, 2015.

From left to right, Foxconn Technology Group CEO Terry Gou, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son and Alibaba founder Jack Ma pose with household communications robot Pepper at Maihama, Chiba, June 18, 2015.

Japanese mobile carrier SoftBank is teaming up with Apple manufacturer Foxconn Technology Group and Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group in a global push to manufacture and sell robots for the home and workplace.

Foxconn and Alibaba are each investing ¥14.5 billion ($US118 million) in SoftBank Robotics Holdings (SRH), for a stake of about 20 per cent each of the company, with SoftBank holding the remaining 60 per cent.

SRH is a holding company for SoftBank's robotics business, which will begin sales of the carrier's Pepper communications robot for Japanese consumers on Saturday. It plans to first sell 1000 units, priced at ¥198,000 with a monthly Cloud connection fee of ¥14,800 and monthly insurance of ¥9,800. The hardware price is very low for a robot as sophisticated as Pepper.

The venture is aimed at manufacturing Pepper and distributing it overseas, though sales outside Japan would not begin until next year. While they are focused on household robots, the trio of companies will shift to develop robots for businesses beginning in the fall of this year.

"Pepper will be the first step," SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son said at an event where he was joined by Foxconn CEO Terry Gou and Alibaba founder Jack Ma. "We started in Japan but we will make this into a global business."

Robotics will make up a major part of SoftBank's business in a few decades, Son said, as Gou and Ma echoed his long-term vision for robots playing an increasingly indispensable role in society.

"Whether you like it or not, robots will be as popular as cars and will play a very important role in the next 30 years," Ma said.

Son, however, said SoftBank doesn't expect to make a profit in the first four years by selling Pepper, which costs significantly more to make than its sale price. The company is hoping the robot will grow emotionally with its owners and become a genuine family member, so that users won't get bored of it.

The partnership follows an announcement by warehouse robot maker Fetch Robotics that it had received a $US20 million investment from SoftBank to help it meet greater demand from fulfillment centers.

Son showed off the latest "emotion engine" for Pepper, a software system that can help it recognize emotions in humans and develop its own artificial feelings. When Pepper is ignored by its owners, for instance, it can mimic a state of being withdrawn and sad. When it's praised and showered with affection, it becomes happy.

The latest version of the robot has a CPU that's four times faster than the one unveiled last year. Through its Cloud connection, Pepper will learn from other robots, but it will not be able to share private information or data related to its owners, according to SoftBank.

"Pepper will become smarter every day by itself," Son said. "Hundreds of thousands, million of Peppers in the future, will teach each other and learn from each other simultaneously."

Tim Hornyak covers Japan and emerging technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Tim on Twitter at @robotopia.

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