Japanese mobile carrier Softbank said Tuesday it will incorporate artificial intelligence technology from IBM into its empathetic robot Pepper that goes on sale in Japan this month.

The AI engine “Watson” is already used in health care, travel and insurance services in English, but an adaptation was needed to make it work and think in  Japanese, said Steve Gold, Vice President, IBM Watson Group.

The deal also is far wider than just for Pepper.

“Our two companies will focus initially on a handful of markets, including healthcare, banking, insurance and retailing. But we also expect to address the telecommunications, auto, and robotics industries in Japan. Softbank understands the Japanese market better than we do, and I’m expecting to be surprised at some of the innovative new uses they and their partners find for Watson,” says Michael Karasick,  Vice President of Innovations for IBM Watson Group

Unlike other cognitive technology that responds rather mechanically, Watson can learn over time like a human brain, and understands the concept of probability, which makes it very sophisticated and more human-like for applications, according to IBM.


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“It depends on the context of the conversation as to what the right answer would be,” as opposed to how a computer would generally try to answer correctly, Gold told The Associated Press. “The world is seldom absolute.”

Watson will be used in Pepper, Softbank’s empathetic robot going on sale in Japan this month for 198,000 yen ($1,700) and will make for a smarter, more charming companion, he said.

SoftBank is already at work on robots based on Watson technology. I saw one in action in our Austin lab a few weeks ago,” Karasick wrote in a blog.

“A cute contraption with arms, legs and blinking eyes, the machine sang Happy Birthday to the Watson Group on our Jan. 9 birthday. It was quite the heartfelt rendition!”

Pepper has a stunned face a bit like C3PO in “Star Wars” and moves around on wheels. In early demonstrations it was a bit mechanical in its responses. Gold said

Watson will change that.

For example, two plus two is four in arithmetic but in another context it could refer to a car design, Gold said. Watson is designed to figure out context and know which answer is more likely.

A call center using Watson will get the caller to the right solution more quickly and make for a less frustrating consumer experience, he said.

But the complexity of the Japanese language, including thousands of characters that stand for various meanings, with several phonetic options, presented a challenge even for Watson, Gold said.

Son said Pepper will not result in big profits immediately, but it points to a new lifestyle, promising to turn into a real business in perhaps 30 years.

Besides Pepper, Softbank will use Watson inside the company, resell it in Japan to businesses such as call centers and work with other companies to develop new applications, according to IBM.

Softbank, the first carrier to sell the iPhone in Japan, has widespread global investments including Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba, which listed in New York last year. Softbank is also aggressively investing in India.