SoftBank Group Corp has confirmed that it is stopping the production of its humanoid robot, Pepper, for the time being. The group has also decided to slash jobs at its robotics facility in France.
Half of the 330 people employed in that division will be losing their jobs. Smaller operations in the US and Britain have already seen job cuts . Staff working in the robotics division in Japan has been redeployed. Negotiations are on at the French facility to determine the exact number of job cuts.
Pepper was launched in 2014 after SoftBank acquired French robotics firm Aldebaran in 2012.
It was touted as the first robot with a “heart”. The production of Pepper was stopped last year itself, according to a Reuters report. It is believed that the company feels that it would be costly to restart the operations.
Pepper was built by Foxconn in China and was proposed to be used as a home companion and a helper in public places such as railway stations, airports, etc.
Unfortunately, the concept never took off despite some high-profile appearances and celebrity push. Only 27,000 Peppers were produced, one of the sources said.
This break in the production will hurt Chief Executive Masayoshi Son’s plan to make SoftBank a leader in the robotics industry. Pepper, launched in 2014, was the face of the conglomerate representing Son’s ambition to turn SoftBank into a technological conglomerate.
SoftBank “will continue to make significant investments in next-generation robots to serve our customers and partners,” the French robotics business said in a statement.
It is reported that a big part of the robot’s non-success was a clash of culture between the French and Japanese ways of doing business. The sales of the robots were affected as the technology was not fully advanced, and its functionality was erratic. Peppers was placed for sales in its mobile phone stores; there was no dedicated sales pitch or push for the robot.
Later the company shifted its focus to the more practical cleaning robot Whiz. The France-based Pepper division was largely sidelined.
The robot was priced at $1,790 (£1,290 and was mainly used as a research and educational tool for schools, colleges and universities.
Robotics expert Prof Noel Sharkey said he would be “happy to see an end to it”, reports BBC.
“Pepper did a lot to harm genuine robotics research by giving an often false impression of a bright cognitive being that could hold conversations.
“It was mostly remote-controlled with a human conversing through its speakers. Deceiving the public in this way is dangerous and gives the wrong impression of the capabilities of AI in the real world.”
The recent setbacks suffered by SoftBank with its involvement in investments like WeWork and the collapsed Greensill Capital company has forced the company to sell its assets. The conglomerate has sold its majority stake in robotics firm Boston Dynamics. The group is now consolidating itself by concentrating on its Vision Fund through which most of its investments are routed.
The 63-year-old Son describes SoftBank as a “capital provider for the information revolution.” SoftBank still has exposure in robotics through SB Logistics and AutoStore.