The Employee You Complain to About Black Friday Sales This Year Could Be a Robot

Pepper the robot of Softbank Robotics

Pepper the robot of Softbank Robotics Francois Mori/AP

The robots are coming—to spread some holiday cheer.

The robots are coming—to spread some holiday cheer.

On Nov. 22, the robotics arm of Japanese telecom giant SoftBank announced a partnership that will bring personal robot Pepper to two Westfield shopping centers in California. Starting today, Peppers will be, erm, peppered around the Westfield San Francisco Centre and the Westfield Valley Fair in Santa Clara, where they’ll be welcoming humans going about their holiday shopping.

For now, Pepper can’t do much. It can say hello in six languages, take photos of customers using a tablet built into its chest, play games with mall patrons, and initiate “impromptu dance parties.” “Pepper brings its own music,” says Steve Carlin, SoftBank Robotics’ American general manager.

Customers can also provide feedback on their shopping experience through Pepper, and starting in December, the robots will be able to offer directions around the mall. Carlin says he thinks “there is something very charming and magical about sharing a moment with a humanoid robot.”

SoftBank has been rolling Pepper out in retail environments globally since first using one as a greeter at one of its stores in Japan in 2014. The company partnered with French supermarket Carrefour to bring Peppers to certain stores earlier this year. Pepper is also taking orders at Pizza Huts in Singapore, patrolling hospitals in Belgium, and greeting customers at banks in Taiwan. The robots cost about $1,600 each, plus roughly $200 in monthly fees.

Pepper’s abilities may be limited, but low-skilled hourly labor is increasingly becoming automated. Companies are already replacing cashiers with touch screens, and robotics firm Knightscope is producing stubby security bots to “guard” shopping centers and parking lots across the US. The bots can be helpful in alerting humans to imminent threats, but they’ve also run over the feet of innocent shoppers.

In the current robotics landscape, C-3PO is still a ways off—and may be for a long time. Right now, we have rolling eggs and animatronic selfie machines. But automation is likely to take away an increasing number of blue-collar jobs, and machines’ ability to discern what we ask of them is getting better every day. Today we can ask Pepper to tell us where Abercrombie & Fitch is, but soon we might be asking bots to find us another size of jeans, help us check out, or even drive us to and from the mall.

All of these capabilities are in development now, so perhaps we’ll soon need a universal basic income just to keep up with our holiday shopping, as humans are replaced by plastic, selfie-obsessed automatons. Dance with Pepper now, until it takes your job.

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