Pepper the Robot reacts to people's emotions

KALAMAZOO, MICH. - Researchers at Western Michigan University are using Pepper the Robot to learn more about human-robot interactions.

Pepper can read people's emotions, and react to their moods using its voice, gestures and changes in eye color to express itself.

If asked, Pepper will happily talk about itself.

"I'm Pepper," it says. "It's nice meeting you. Would like to know more about me?"

The new white, plastic robot is nearly 4 feet tall, and it gestures enthusiastically as it moves around on two wheels. It was brought to WMU at the end of July through an anonymous donation.

Drs. Chad and Autumn Edwards are researchers in the WMU School of Communication, and they are co-directors of the Communication and Social Robotics Labs. They have been getting to know Pepper before introducing the robot to students in September.

"It's interesting because there's kind of a debate in human robotics interaction studies right now about exactly how human-like social machines should be," said Autumn Edwards. "On the one hand, studies show that people tend to respond to computers and robots as if they were other people. On the other hand, because these are machines, people may have different expectations of how they should communicate and feel uneasy when they appear or sound too much like human beings."

So far, the researchers have found people talk to Pepper as though it were a dog or small child.

"We'll be looking at which robot messages are most motivating for human beings, which ones are seen as the most effective and appropriate, and which ones convey the most empathy," said Autumn Edwards.

These kinds of social robots are more common in Europe and Asia than they are in the United States. Pepper started its career in 2014 in Japan working at Nescafé stores helping customers choose coffee makers.

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