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Robot Companions and Killers

June, 2014


Meet Pepper. She's white, has no legs,no hair, two large doll-like eyes and a flat-panel display stuck on her chest. She's 121 centimetres tall and weighs 28 kilograms. She's a cute, wisecracking, dancing, singing personal companion robot and she can be bought in Japan in February for 198,000 yen ($2,100).

Pepper has gently gesticulating hands and she's famous. She recently appeared on stage in a Tokyo suburb. The cooing, gesturing humanoid on wheels can decipher emotions says her creator, billionaire Masayoshi Son, who says robots should be tender and make people smile. Pepper dramatically touched hands with Son in an "E.T." moment.


Pepper was developed jointly with Aldebaran Robotics, which designs, produces and sells autonomous humanoid robots. Besides featuring the latest voice recognition, she is loaded with more than a dozen sensors, including two touch sensors in its hands, three touch sensors on its head, and six laser sensors and three bumper sensors in its base.

She has two cameras and four microphones on her head and has Wi-Fi and Ethernet networking capabilities.


In a demonstration, Pepper sang, "I want to be loved." Softbank says she can dance and tell jokes. Softbank, which now owns Sprint of the U.S. and boasts more than 100 million subscribers globally, has been growing rapidly as a mobile carrier in Japan, boosted by being the first to offer Apple's iPhone.

"I've believed that the most important role of robots will be as kind and emotional companions to enhance our daily lives, to bring happiness, constantly surprise us and make people grow," said Bruno Maisonnier, founder and chief executive of Aldebaran, who appeared on the stage with Son.

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 any outcry from its fans.

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 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.

The main corporate focus is not on companion robots but on industrial robots that will steal your job and military robots for profitable wars. An all-out drone war seems inevitable given the rapid rate at which battlefield technology is advancing. An arsenal of robotic warriorsis but a few years away.

Robots that can kill people aren't science fiction anymore: they're reality. Russia has deployed armed robots, different from drones because they can select targets and decide to fire on them without any human input, to guard its missile bases. Russia wants to expand its robotic capabilities considerably, and it's likely several other countries do as well. We're slouching towards a future where robots play a frontline role in combat.

The armed robots issue is becoming so real, so fast, that 87 countries sat down at a United Nations-convened conference from May 13th to the 15th to discuss banning the things. Those nations, including Russia, China, and the United States, discussed amending the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which 117 countries have accepted, to prohibit the use of armed robots during wartime. A lot of the news coverage on this issue has treated robot arms control as if it's a joke or a novelty. It's neither:  For over a year, Human Rights Watch has been building a campaign to pressure for banning military robots, arguing that they pose an unacceptable threat to civilian populations. Are they right? Should we be banning what HRW calls "killer robots"?

The debate about robots in warfare comes down to the question of whether they would make war crimes more or less likely. There are serious arguments on either side. In many ways, this new argument about robots is an extension of much older argument about why war crimes happen and how to prevent them. This isn't a joke anymore: the debate over military robotics is about preventing horrific abuse of real people.

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