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June 5, 2014

Emotional robot set for sale in Japan next year

TOKYO (AP) — A cooing, gesturing humanoid on wheels that can decipher emotions has been unveiled in Japan by billionaire Masayoshi Son who says robots should be tender and make people smile.

Son's mobile phone company Softbank said Thursday that the robot it has dubbed Pepper will go on sale in Japan in February for 198,000 yen ($1,900). Overseas sales plans are under consideration but undecided.

The machine, which has no legs, but has gently gesticulating hands appeared on a stage in a Tokyo suburb, cooing and humming. It dramatically touched hands with Son in a Genesis or "E.T." moment.

Son, who told the crowd that his longtime dream was to go into the personal robot business, said Pepper has been programmed to read the emotions of people around it by recognizing expressions and voice tones.

"Our aim is to develop affectionate robots that can make people smile," he said.

Cuddly robots are not new in Japan, a nation dominated by "kawaii," or cute culture, but no companion robot has emerged a major market success yet.

Japanese electronics and entertainment company Sony Corp. discontinued the Aibo pet-dog robot in 2006, despite an outcry from its fans. At that time, Sony had developed a child-shaped entertainment robot similar to Pepper but much smaller, capable of dances and other charming moves, which never became a commercial product.

Honda Motor Co. has developed the walking, talking Asimo robot, but that is too sophisticated and expensive for home use, and appears in Honda showrooms and gala events only. Even then, it is prone to glitches because of its complexity.

Many other Japanese companies, including Hitachi Ltd. and Toyota Motor Corp., not to mention universities and startups, have developed various robots, big and small, which entertain and serve as companions.

There is little emphasis on delivering on practical work, in contrast to industrial robots at factories and military robots for war.

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