Programmable robots that entertain customers are increasingly popular in the Czech Republic. They can dance, answer questions, and even shake hands. Czech companies have started using humanoid robots for their commercial presentations in the last year and a half. A white humanoid on wheels is the one seen most often; abroad, competing models can be found as well.
Just as Tesla has become a symbol for electric cars, the white humanoid with the brand name Pepper from Franco-Japanese Softbank Robotics is the best-known representative from the expanding generation of commercial humanoids. There are an estimated twenty examples of this model in the Czech Republic.
“We develop mobile applications. In addition to software, this one also has a semi-humanoid robot,” says Adam Böck, project manager at Adastra.One. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Adastra.One has exclusive rights to sell Pepper. The manufacturer, Softbank, expects the humanoid to be taken up by developers such as Adastra, who will program the robot according to customer requirements.
In the Czech Republic, Adastra has sold just under a dozen of these humanoids, while others have come here from abroad. One, for example, serves to welcome guests at the reception of the Pyramid Hotel (Orea Hotels) in Břevnov, Prague. There, they program the robot themselves. “Our hotels were not perceived as the most progressive. We wanted to show the public that we are changing, modernizing,” says Matěj Vyskočil, hotel manager. The group also lends the robot to conferences held in its network of hotels.
The basic unprogrammed version costs EUR 20,000,-.
Another white humanoid entertains clients with dancing and hugs at Prague’s Václav Havel Airport (owned by MasterCard), and T-Mobile has one, too. “It’s a great welcome manager, an ice-breaker that makes customers smile, especially the youngest ones,” says Martina Kemrová, spokesperson for T-Mobile Czech Republic. Another Adastra customer, who prefers not to be named, uses the robot for internal purposes – it is located in the staff cafeteria and collects data on employee satisfaction. Confiding in a figure with the physical parameters of a thirteen-year-old child with huge, blinking eyes, is easier for them than completing a satisfaction questionnaire on their computers.
In its basic form, the humanoid cannot do anything that a developer has not previously taught it. In fact, it can respond to the rudimentary questions “what is your name?”, “are you a boy or a girl?”, or “what are you doing?”, and it can make some simple movements.
Once it has been programmed, the robot can converse like a chatbot – automatically responding to questions on a specific topic. This Artificial Intelligence feature is commonly used on corporate websites or in call centers, where it is, to a certain extent, replacing live operators. It takes advantage of the fact that customers have similar queries, and the app can use keywords in each question to match it to an appropriate, ready-made response.
Pepper, the most common humanoid, weighs 29 kg.
Adastra owns one robot themselves, and loans it out for conferences. Programming it for a one-time event costs in the tens of thousands of Czech crowns, in addition to which it has to be physically accompanied by two people from the company. One of them is a developer, who controls the robot remotely and is also able to fix it, if necessary.
“The scenario is prepared in advance, so we need to cooperate with the client before the event,” says Böck. According to him, the main reason companies reach out is because the robot evokes positive emotions. “Serious conference attendees thaw when they come into contact with it and take a selfie,” he adds. Adastra does not intend to purchase another robot of the same kind – they expect more modern versions to be available soon.
Softbank Robotics advertises on its website that Pepper can read human emotions based on facial expression and respond accordingly. “We have much more professional tools for facial recognition; we don’t use Pepper for that. If the customer requires it, we can add this function” says Böck.
In the Czech Republic, ČVUT in Prague has the largest number of these humanoids. “We have three Pepper robots and seven of his smaller Nao brothers,” says Miroslav Skrbek, Head of the Intelligent Embedded Systems Laboratory at ČVUT’s Faculty of Information Technology. The university uses them to teach students – they develop applications for the robots. “We are at the beginning of the robot era. As they become commercialized, they will gradually improve and be able to do more,” says the academic. The university plans to purchase more advanced versions of the humanoids as soon as they are available.
Elsewhere, BigMedia, the largest vendor of outdoor advertising, has acquired two white robots (named IQmen), who are attracting customers to the company’s IQport entertainment center on a boat anchored on the Vltava River in Prague. The Neštěmická elementary school in Ústí nad Labem also uses a robot as a teaching aid. It was purchased by the Innovation Centre of the Ústí Region. In the classroom, the robot primarily uses a tablet, which it wears on its chest and where pupils enter their answers to assignments.
A humanoid can be found in Duplex on Wenceslas Square as well. “It’s SHE. We bought her half a year ago for advertising and, together with a live hostess, she helps provide information,” says Duplex media representative Máša Kulitskaja.
According to information on its website, Softbank has supplied humanoids to two thousand companies worldwide to date. The robotics firm is currently developing Romeo, a humanoid as big as an adult human, who walks on two legs and should be able to help people physically. Another leading manufacturer of humanoids for commercial use is the Chinese company UBT Robotics – it has large humanoids Walker and Cruzr, as well as programmable mini-robots called Alpha, which are rather a toy for the home.