Yoshimoto Kogyo’s role in creating a real-life robot with a sense of humor

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

With big, round, smiling eyes and a shirt and bow tie displayed on the screen on his chest, humanoid robot Pepper is ready to entertain his guests. Music begins to play, and Pepper shows off his moves to the 1960s hit song “The Loco-Motion” as a crowd of onlookers laughs with pleasure.

Pepper was created not for labor but to make people laugh — and with Yoshimoto Kogyo, Japan’s biggest entertainment empire, working behind the scenes, that is a sure thing.

Touted as the world’s first proper affordable consumer robot, Pepper was jointly developed by Japan’s SoftBank Corp. and French robot maker Aldebaran Robotics, and is able to communicate with people and read their emotions. News of Pepper’s unveiling on June 5 spread quickly across Japan and the world.

On that same day, the staff at Yoshimoto Robotics Laboratory, Inc., a group company of Yoshimoto Kogyo, were also celebrating. It’s no joke: Yoshimoto created a company specifically to develop software for robots, with applications that make Pepper perform dances and sketches for an audience.

“Pepper was our new excursion into the unknown; our first time producing an ‘inorganic substance’ instead of a human being,” says Katsuaki Yamaji, director general of the laboratory. “I’ve been a manager for talents most of my career, but now I feel like I am a manager for a robot.”

Yoshimoto’s creative team for Pepper consists of three people: Toshinari Nakano, the mastermind; and Masato Takahashi and Kyeong Heon Shin of Bye Bye World, a duo known for their entertaining gadgets and toys, who are in charge of controlling how Pepper moves.

Nakano, a television and radio writer, is the brains behind Yoshimoto’s applications for Pepper. He comes up with various ideas for robotic performances, and then Takahashi and Shin take care of the technical aspects, ranging from coming up with body gestures to suit each performance to adjusting the pitch of Pepper’s voice to make him sound cute or funny.

Nakano recalls that when he was first asked to come on board in December 2012, it was a top-secret mission, and so he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

“I got a call from Yamaji saying he had a job for me but that he couldn’t tell me what it was about, because he had signed a nondisclosure agreement. Given that it was Yoshimoto, I thought it was all a joke,” Nakano says. “When I arrived at SoftBank, these thick doors that you only see in movies opened — and there was Pepper. It was completely surreal.”

At about 120 cm tall and weighing 28 kg, Pepper is a robot with an “emotional engine” that can understand emotions by reading people’s expressions or the changes in tone of their voice. You can meet Pepper at certain SoftBank shops around Japan, and in February next year, he will go on sale, starting at ¥198,000 plus tax.

The humanoid robot loves to engage in two-way conversation, makes wisecracks and is a bit of a know-it-all, but he’s lovable, too.

Pepper also has all sorts of entertainment tools up his sleeve. He can sing and he has pretty smooth dance steps. He can also host his own quiz show with a bit of kabuki flair, and read picture-book stories using the display screen on his chest. Nothing that Pepper does is straight-forward: There is always a twist, thanks to the Yoshimoto team.

“Robots had only ever made me laugh when they messed up, like when they tripped by accident. It was pretty unbelievable that a robot could make you laugh through content,” Nakano says. “There have been and there will be robots that serve a convenient function, but not one that can make you laugh.”

But why focus on humor when all other robots are being designed as useful assistants for humans? Kaname Hayashi, deputy director of the Business Development Division at SoftBank, explains that CEO Masayoshi Son’s original goal was to create a robot that has “compassion.”

“Until now, it was important for most humanoid robots to be able to walk without tripping or to hold a cup. But unlike many other robots, Pepper was not born to copy the movements of human beings,” Hayashi says. “The original purpose was for Pepper to be able to communicate with people and have them open their hearts.”

Hayashi says SoftBank went through many “trials and errors” to see what kind of robot Pepper should be. He adds that they even had Pepper do the regular “convenient things” that other robots do, but realized that the key to making him a lovable emotional robot was humor.

And no one knows more about humor than Yoshimoto, the kingdom of comedy.

With 6,000 talents currently under its wing and more than 102 years of history, the Yoshimoto enterprise does not stop at management. Yoshimoto also has 11 theaters and even runs its own school, where aspiring comedians can learn how to make it in the entertainment world. With robots, the comedy empire has entered a whole different stage.

Yoshimoto Robotics Laboratory’s Yamaji says that Pepper is only the company’s first robot, and that it is looking to develop other types of robots in the future.

“It is hard to say what the future holds for robotics, but I think it would be fun if we can create a superstar that is something other than human,” Yamaji says. “Maybe we can even enter Pepper in a stand-up comedy contest — and win.”

Watch Pepper in action here.

  • I.m. Strandedinsonoma

    Have him elected President of the United States. Oh wait! We already HAVE the biggest joke in the world as our “president.” Never mind.