24 April 2019
Pepper is a humanoid robot capable of learning and expressing human emotions. Photo: Akihabara News
Pepper is a humanoid robot capable of learning and expressing human emotions. Photo: Akihabara News

This Nescafe salesman is hard to refuse

For a long time robots have replaced humans in many humdrum functions along assembly lines such as welding or turning nuts and bolts.

But a new breed of these artificial-intelligence workers is being deployed in other areas of the workplace, serving as receptionists, telephone operators — and now, salesmen.

Nestle S.A., the Swiss food and beverage giant, is acquiring a thousand of these humanoid robots to help sell its coffee machines at electronic stores across Japan, Reuters reports.

This has become possible after the Japanese technology conglomerate SoftBank Corp. unveiled Pepper, a bug-eyed humanoid robot capable of learning and expressing human emotions, in June, and said it could be mass-produced and sold commercially.

A humanoid robot is built to resemble the human body, and has many of the human senses including sight, touch and hearing. It has a terrific memory and can talk as well.

Sensing the great opportunity it presents, Nestle decided to become the first corporate buyer of Pepper, which was developed by a French company and manufactured in Taiwan.

The advantages of employing robots are obvious. Unlike their human counterparts, they don’t ask for salary or commission, they don’t complain or get tired — no union problems or issues with fellow employees — as long as you don’t forget to charge their batteries or replace their parts when they conk out.

Initially, the company will acquire 20 of the robots in December to interact with customers and promote its coffee machines. By the end of next year, the maker of Nescafe coffee and KitKat chocolate bars plans to have the robots working at 1,000 stores, according to the news agency.

Nestle did not say how much it was paying for Pepper, but SoftBank has said it would retail for 198,000 yen (US$1,830).

Japan seems the best place to deploy the AI staff. It’s a technologically sophisticated market where the presence of robots and advanced electronic gadgets are taken for granted. Besides, the country faces chronic labor shortages so robotic staff are welcome.

It’s also an important market for Nestle, where it has maintained healthy growth while many of its major markets are slowing. But it’s market that requires constant innovation in view of the intense competition from foreign and domestic players.

For KitKat, for example, the company has introduced wasabi and green tea flavors for the Japanese market.

Nestle Japan president Kohzoh Takaoka is quite upbeat about Pepper. “We hope this new type of made-in-Japan customer service will take off around the world,” he says. 

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