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10 October 2017 - Jann Raveling

Allow me to introduce … Pepper – the intelligent robot from Bremen

Digitization

Blackout Technologies are developing robots using artificial intelligence

Blackout Technologies are developing robot software, or ‘personalities’, using artificial intelligence. The new company is the first in Europe to market truly intelligent personalities for robots. Demand is extremely high and the programming team, based in Bremen’s World Trade Center, is growing quickly.

The tablet on Pepper’s chest is an information display and control pad.
The tablet on Pepper’s chest is an information display and control pad. © WFB/Jann Raveling

Pepper is waist-high with big black eyes, a winning smile and a soothing female voice – most people want to cuddle the little white robot as soon as they meet her. And they can! All they have to do is say “Pepper, hug me!” and she’ll open her arms, ready for your embrace. Whether or not she likes it, nobody can be sure, but it certainly does nothing to dampen her friendly demeanour.

“Pepper is able to recognise people and converse with them. She can even gauge their age, gender and state of mind and adjust her response accordingly. She really does have her own personality,” claims Marc Fiedler, robot engineer and creator of Pepper, with pride. Fiedler founded Blackout Technologies with his partner Gheorghe Lisca at the start of 2017. Blackout is paving the way in social robotics – robots that interact with humans and help them in the office or in day-to-day life, for example, acting as sales assistants in shops.

Social robotics with Blackout Technologies: breaking new ground

It’s still a relatively new field, and very few companies in the west are working on social robotics. It’s more prevalent in Japan, where over 10,000 Pepper robots have already been sold. “The Japanese are mad for her,” says Fiedler. The body, electronics and control mechanism are manufactured by French firm Softbank Robotics.

What makes Bremen’s Pepper so special is the software – it is her heart and soul. “Without intelligent software, a robot is just a machine,” explains the 31-year-old. The Bremen-based innovators have connected the robot bodies with artificial intelligence (AI) databases, such as IBM’s Watson and Microsoft’s Azure. Thanks to the computing power of these cloud networks and the clever algorithms behind the AI databases, Bremen-born Pepper can process spoken questions, compute their meaning and formulate appropriate responses. That’s something most of their Asian counterparts struggle with.

“What we are doing is revolutionary. Our robots are the most advanced in their field,” explains Gheorghe Lisca with confidence. He is responsible for software development at Blackout. The AI specialist first came to Bremen to study computer science at the university, which is where he met Fiedler. Since founding the start-up, the two entrepreneurs have been joined by three employees.

Pepper – the robot with a human touch

Despite its relative infancy, the Blackout team has been able to attract notable clients from across Europe on the strength of its software. For example, their robots have been used at trade fairs to guide the way, welcome delegates and simply get people talking.

Marc Fiedler, Lisa Fischer and Gheorghe Lisca from Blackout Technologies
Marc Fiedler, Lisa Fischer and Gheorghe Lisca from Blackout Technologies © WFB/Jann Raveling

“The surprise element is a big factor – people are intrigued and they like to engage with Pepper. She can be put to work anywhere where communication is needed,” adds Fiedler. Pepper cannot hold anything. Her arms serve simply to make her look more ‘human’, but there are still lots of roles she can fulfil: sales assistant, bank adviser, guide, and much more besides.

Pepper has also been trialled as a carer. As part of a project conducted with the Demenz centre for dementia in Schleswig-Holstein and IBM in Hamburg, Pepper is being prepared for work with dementia patients, including making sure they take their medicine. The Blackout developers adapt the software for each and every customer. “Every Pepper is different – and so sometimes she develops her own eccentricities,” says Lisca, smiling.

Learning and teaching: giving a robot the human touch

“Because of her size and her design, Pepper appears quite childlike, which is a real advantage when she’s interacting with people. Most people warm to her instantly, because she’s sweet and kind,” explains founder Marc Fiedler. Software and hardware have to come together to make a good robot. The team has worked long and hard on the development. They test, experiment, adjust and test again. “The software is self-learning, so Pepper has to interact with people in order to improve. After all, we cannot foresee every single situation that daily life might present,” adds Fiedler.

The robot overlords are coming! Or are they?

When it comes to making a robot appear more human, it’s all in the detail. For instance, Pepper never stands completely still; she is always moving her arms or her head, just like a human. People don’t stand like statues, so she doesn’t either. It’s a detail that helps make people more accepting of robotic assistants. “Social robots aren’t going to replace people anytime soon. The technology isn’t that sophisticated yet. Instead, they lighten the load for people working in sales, on help desks or in patient care, giving them more time to focus on their most important tasks,” explains the team’s marketing expert, Lisa Fischer.

World Trade Center Bremen – ideal location for a start-up

The young entrepreneurs based their business in World Trade Center Bremen. They are ideally situated in the technology centre. “Here we have contact with other start-ups developing really promising technologies, and being within Bremen Airport-City, we are within easy reach of potential clients,” explains Fischer. Thanks to the early success of Pepper, the start-up has so far managed without outside financing. “And we want to keep it that way,” adds Fiedler. “We want to maintain our independence and our strength, because the market is growing so rapidly.” They want to expand quickly and attract new staff. That would take them a step closer to their ultimate goal: “One day, we want to build our own robot and herald a new era in social robotics!”

But until then, they will keep tinkering with Pepper – who, by the way, dances beautifully. Her favourite band is the French trio ‘I’m fresh! You’re pretty!’

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