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This 'emotional' robot is about to land on US shores -- and it wants to be your friend

Pepper the robot wants to be your friend. It can listen to you, can tell when you’re feeling down, dance, and follow you around — all on its own. Next year, Pepper is coming to America.

In the meantime, Pepper is already making friends with one of the world’s most famous astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson.

At the Clinton Global Initiative’s “The Future of Global Impact” conference on Monday, Pepper hugged it out with Tyson, an astrophysicist at the Natural Museum of History and the host of “Cosmos” and “Star Talk,” who was moderating the event.

But before it can take over the US, Pepper needs to get to know us better. To better fit in with its new audience, Pepper’s creators are giving the robot’s manners an American makeover.

When the “emotional” robot debuted in Japan earlier this year — selling for $US2000 American dollars — it sold out in under a minute. Japanese consumers were eager to get their own personal robot buddies, outfitted to understand the ins and outs of Japanese culture. In Japan, Pepper bows and “is much more silly and cute,” Aldebaran Robotics communications manager Alia Pyros told MIT Technology Review.

Screen Shot 2015 09 28 at 1.12.33 PMClinton Global Initiative

“In the US, we have this kind of C3-PO idea, where he’s kind of snarky and kind of smart,” Pyros said. So they adapted the robot’s personality accordingly.

The robot’s manufacturer Aldebaran Robotics, a French company now owned by the Japanese corporation Softbank, is giving Pepper an American education a la “My Fair Lady.” But in addition to pronunciation and etiquette, Pepper is also learning to give fist bumps and deliver sassy, sarcastic comebacks.

“I think we should partner together,” Pepper told Tyson shortly after giving him a fist bump. “With your brain and my shiny good looks, we would make a great team.”

It may seem kind of silly, but an easygoing interaction will be key to Pepper’s success in American markets. Yann LeCun, Facebook’s artificial intelligence (AI) research director, told Tech Insider in an email that while AI would never develop feelings on their own, some will be programmed with emotions because it makes it easier for humans to work with them.

“We can build into them altruism and other drives that will make them pleasant for humans to interact with them and be around them,” LeCun wrote.

This is exactly what Pepper’s creators are trying to build into the robot. And since American culture is so different from Japanese, Pepper’s creators changed its programming to adapt it to our emotions.

Screen Shot 2015 09 28 at 1.12.31 PMClinton Global Initiative

While Pepper still sounds a little alien, Brian Scassellati, a professor Yale University who researches robot-human interactions, told MIT Technology Review that AI will soon getting to the point where these interactions will be more fluid.

“Human-robot interaction has really started to home in on the kinds of behaviours that give you that feeling of presence,” Scassellati said.

Pepper is pretty limited to social interaction — it can entertain and help people in stores and offices. Pepper told the audience at the Clinton Global Initiative that it can also play games, keep track of calendar events, pull information from the internet, assist doctors and nurses in the hospital, and keep the elderly company in their homes.

It can navigate spaces on its own, carry on conversations, and even recognise whether you’re frowning or smiling, but the child-sized robot can’t do useful things like hold or carry objects.

That might be changing in the future. According to MIT Technology Review, Aldebaran will soon work with software developers to build custom capabilities and is collaborating with IBM Watson’s supercomputer chef to create and walk humans through recipes.

But don’t expect Pepper to be anything more than a friend — the company is strictly against it. They have asked buyers¬†to sign a user agreement stating that they wouldn’t “perform any sexual act or other indecent behaviour” with the robot, according to Japan Times.

If you are willing to sign on to that user agreement, Pepper will be available in the US in 2016. Pepper’s US price hasn’t been released yet but it sells for around $US2000 in Japan, with required monthly subscription fees for updates and maintenance, according to MIT Technology Review.

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