The producer of the wildly popular PaPeRo robot
“want to spread the warmth of robot communication all over the world”
PaPeRo communication robots connect humans with humans and humans with machines through their adorable antics, such as speaking directly to a person's face, and turning their head towards the sound of a person's voice. Shin Ishiguro strives on a daily basis to build the market for PaPeRo and expand its application to different fields. Here he speaks passionately about NEC's dedication to robot development, the new value and services that advanced robots create, and their future potential.
It feels just like spending time with a family member
--What sort of robot is NEC's PaPeRo?
Ishiguro: A range of robots exist for different purposes and fields, such as industrial robots at factories, cleaning robots in homes, and toy robots. NEC is focusing its energy on the development of communication robots. These connect people with people, and people with machines. PaPeRo communication robots are designed to fill this intermediary role.
The "PaPeRo petit" here (Photo 2) is 24 cm tall, and weighs 1.3 kg. Its diminutive body is capable of basic functions such as "seeing," "listening," and "speaking," but it also features NEC's advanced technology throughout, which is our focus for communication robots. For example, it can recognize the faces of others using the camera located where its eyes are, and also detect the direction of people with the heat sensor in the center of its body. On top of that, PaPeRo petit makes decisions based on information such as the distance to the other party, which is gauged using an ultrasonic sensor next to the heat sensor. PaPeRo petit can also hear people's voices while cutting surrounding noise using its dual microphones. In addition to speaking input text data using a synthesized voice, it can reply based on the words it hears using voice recognition. Features like these enable communication almost on the level of talking with a family member or friend, as PaPeRo will turn towards you as you approach, look you in the eye when it speaks, and nod along when you talk to it.
--What is NEC's focus when it comes to communication robots?
Ishiguro: NEC places emphasis on warm, heartfelt communication through robots. Although messages or information can be delivered using a smartphone or video, PaPeRo petit has a communicative power not found in conventional devices, combining speech with movements and gestures to convey feeling, and deepen mutual understanding.
Another factor is natural, easy communication. We aimed for smooth and friendly communication resembling the messages exchanged by people, to make this technology available to even the elderly or disabled who find it hard to use smartphones or PCs.
Those who have come into contact with PaPeRo petit at demonstrations and exhibitions often comment that it felt like being in the presence of another living thing, rather than an inanimate robot. It is a great pleasure to hear things like this, as I feel that is exactly where PaPeRo petit's charm lies.
Further growth and evolution with a cloud-based brain
--Does PaPeRo petit have any other features?
Ishiguro: I'm glad you asked. One other feature is the integration of cloud services with PaPeRo petit over its Wi-Fi network function.
This integration lets you to collect a range of information via PaPeRo petit's sensors, and control it in a number of ways using cloud-based applications. Because the cloud is used as a "brain," it is possible to evolve and develop the PaPeRo petit in all manner of ways, upgrading its control and enhancing its functionality.
In addition to this cloud integration, NEC has made particular efforts in a number of areas. The 24 cm height of PaPeRo petit is one of these. This was the result of carefully considering the best size for placing on tables or shelves indoors, as PaPeRo petit was designed for household use. We were also extremely careful to ensure that PaPeRo petit was safe, given that it would be interacting with people in the home. For safety reasons we chose not to equip it with the ability to walk by itself, to prevent accidents caused by contact with people.
--How have NEC's communication robots evolved?
Ishiguro: NEC's communication robot development project began in 1997. We completed our first robot in 1999, and in 2001 a prototype of the current PaPeRo robots came to fruition. The name PaPeRo is derived from "Partner-type Personal Robot." In 2009 we created the PaPeRo R500, which is larger than the PaPeRo petit, for test marketing purposes. This PaPeRo is capable of walking by itself, and is made available for rental to a variety of companies and research institutions as a corporate communication robot for cultivating new fields of application and creating new services. Wait, I guess PaPeRo might not appreciate me calling it rental. Let's say it's a job assignment. Then, at 11:00 AM on November 11, 2013, this little household communication robot, PaPeRo petit, became the new addition to the family.
--Why is NEC committed to robot development?
Ishiguro: Demand for robots is set to expand enormously, breaking into new areas and markets. An announcement from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry forecast that the market for robots in Japan would grow to 2.9 trillion yen in 2020, and 9.7 trillion yen in 2035. The market for robots is expanding from industrial fields into areas such as the service sector. The government is also currently mounting an effort to develop the robotics into one of Japan's key industries. Japan is leading the world in the area of communication robots in particular. One reason for NEC's commitment is its desire to contribute to the strategy for the growth of Japanese technology, by developing communication robots that utilize a range of advanced technology.
Another reason is NEC's slogan, "Realizing an information society friendly to humans and the earth." The new value created by advanced ICT and networks involves more than just increasing the sophistication of our information society. It is extremely important to create a society that is friendly to all people, from small children to the elderly. NEC is currently focusing its efforts on social solutions, promoting the concept of "people living and thriving." This is because we want to see PaPeRo and PaPeRo petit used to create an information society that is truly kind to humans, supporting friendly communication between family members, playing an active role in various services such as caregiving, medical treatment, and distribution, and also bringing a smile to people all around the world with their cute antics.
PaPeRo is the holder of two Guinness World Records
--What do you think NEC's technological strengths are with regard to communication robot development?
Ishiguro: Over 35 years ago, in 1977, NEC was the first in the world to announce "C&C, The Integration of Computers & Communications." As this statement stressed, NEC places enormous value on communication. NEC distilled its distinctive, advanced assets, including ICT and network technology, and created these robots to enrich communication.
Another of NEC's major strengths is its highly-advanced media processing and recognition technology. In addition to the voice recognition technology I mentioned earlier, we also have the world's most accurate facial recognition technology. The large PaPeRo was already equipped with facial recognition technology to distinguish people's faces, and we are currently looking into adding this feature to PaPeRo petit. Once PaPeRo petit is equipped with facial recognition, it will be able to scan the faces of your family members, turn towards your soccer-playing son, and encourage him to score a goal that day.
--What other features are provided when utilizing PaPeRo?
Ishiguro: I'd like to place particular emphasis on the cloud-integrated platform we provide. As I mentioned before, PaPeRo's features and performance can be expanded greatly depending on the applications developed. Cloud computing continues to evolve at a swift pace. By connecting PaPeRo to the cloud, it is possible to use applications tailored to a wide range of purposes and goals, such as caregiving or education.
In the near future, once a variety of applications are available on the cloud, end users will be able to use the PaPeRo in their home to freely select the application they want, just like choosing and installing an app you like on your smartphone. We believe that living life alongside a PaPeRo unique to you and your family will soon be a reality.
Let me give an example to illustrate the fun things that PaPeRo can do through the development of applications. To our surprise, PaPeRo is actually now the holder of two Guinness World Records. It was first recognized for being the world's first babysitter robot that kids can play with and learn from. Next, it was recognized as the world's first wine steward robot that "tasted" wine using an infrared sugar content sensor. As you can probably tell from this, PaPeRo has a lot of hidden potential.