Stroll into an HSBC Bank branch office in New York, Seattle, Beverly Hills, or Toronto (see below), and you’re likely to encounter a 4-foot-tall, all-white, 60-pound, semi-humanoid robot that’s clearly trying to get your attention by using the same verbal and nonverbal cues that we’re all familiar with. As you approach Pepper, developed by SoftBank Robotics, it might make a humming noise to indicate that it has verbal abilities and wants to start a conversation. It sways back and forth to display a friendly, welcoming sort of animation. It might do a little dance. And it nods its head and moves its arms to approximate human body language.

Once you get closer, Pepper’s facial recognition and social skills kick in. Pepper looks right at you. A pale greenish pulsating glow accentuates Pepper’s round black eyes that sit recessed in its head. Pepper speaks: “Welcome to HSBC. How can I help you today?” And that’s where the fun starts.

Studying real-world interactions

Matt Willis, Ph.D., design and HRI lead at SoftBank, has been intently studying the real-world interactions between Pepper and bank customers in order to continue to improve the effectiveness of the robot. He says initial reactions to Pepper run the gamut; some people stop and watch from afar, some run right up, some just wave, some start talking, some try to shake hands, and many whip out their phones to take selfies and videos.

Non-threatening, yet intelligent

One of the key design criteria was making sure that Pepper was not imposing, threatening or off-putting in its physical appearance, particularly for a public setting like a bank where visitors can run the gamut from children to the elderly. That’s why Pepper is short, has a soft, rounded shape and a childlike appearance.

In addition, there was no attempt to make Pepper look human. “Pepper is a robot and doesn’t pretend to be more than a robot,” Willis says. “Pepper is not trying to be human – it’s trying to be social.” This approach avoids the whole ‘uncanny valley’ issue that other humanoid robots that look “too human” could face.

Pepper at Robotics & AI Summit

Pepper is designed not to be pushy or invade humans’ personal space. Image: Matt Wagner

In addition, the team worked on Pepper’s voice to make it different from the halting, monotone, and usually female voice that humans hear when receiving a robocall or encounter a call center bot.  Pepper is different. A team in Paris developed a unique voice that matches Pepper’s physical appearance; in other words, Pepper has a clearly non-human voice that is meant to be friendly and to show emotions, particularly enthusiasm and excitement. At the same time, the voice isn’t too cartoony, because it has to convey to the customer that Pepper has intelligence, and is capable of discussing serious topics like banking products and services.

Gesture and movement are additional challenges, says Willis. Pepper needs to find the right balance between attracting customers and not being pushy. So, once Pepper grabs someone’s attention, it doesn’t invade anyone’s personal space; it’s up the customer to approach the robot.

In addition, the robot’s gestures and hand movements need to take into account all of the potential misunderstandings that occur in conversations. For example, if a customer asks a question and Pepper nods, does it mean that Pepper understood the question, or does it mean that Pepper is answering ‘Yes’? Willis said these are the subtleties that his team is constantly refining and improving.

Pepper heads to Canada

pepper canada toronto hsbc

HSBC Bank Canada’s new Client Experience Ambassador at the bank’s 70 York Street branch. HSBC is the first major bank in Canada to deploy Pepper. (CNW Group/HSBC Bank Canada)

HSBC Bank Canada today announced that Pepper will be deployed as its newly created “Client Experience Ambassador” role at a branch on 70 York Street in Toronto.

“I am very excited about Pepper and I know that it will get others more excited about coming into the bank,” said Larry Tomei, EVP and head of retail banking and wealth management at HSBC Bank Canada. “When talking with our customers, Pepper will help educate them to get the most out of our products and services and learn about other options. And when you meet Pepper, you can’t help but smile!”

Like Pepper’s functions at other HSBC branches in the U.S., Pepper will greet customers, ask them what help they need, and invite them to explore products such as credit cards or other services. Customers can pose with Pepper for selfies and upload them to social media using the hashtag #MeetPepper.

The bank said it has been making significant, ongoing investments in digital channels to respond to customers’ needs. In May 2019, it opened its Global Data & Innovation Lab in Toronto, which includes an artificial intelligence ecosystem that uses advanced machine learning techniques to analyze up to 10 petabytes of data from 1.6 million corporate and institutional clients.

Full Article: Robotics Business Review