We have a new-worker- The humanoid robot Pepper recently joined our department. Researchers from the area of aging society prepare Pepper for a mission in retirement homes. 

He is a mime, gives you high fives, is able to dance and tells jokes. All that despite the fact that he is a 4 foot, sliding robot. His big eyes convey kindness and are glowing in different colors. He is constructed cutely so that people are not afraid of him. Touching his head makes him giggle and say “I am so ticklish today!” Since two months, Pepper found his new home at the Forschungswohnzimmer (X-LAB) at the University of Siegen. Researchers from the department of Business Informatics and New Media (Prof. Dr. Volker Wulf) and Human Computer Interaction (HCI) students are counting on little Pepper to fulfill great achievements: Pepper is supposed to visit retirement homes, entertain the elderly, propose them riddles, play music and just make them have a good time while caregivers are busy with other tasks.

Pepper has sensors attached to his head and fingers, he is able to hear, see and talk and even recognizes different intonations as well as emotions. Developed in France, he has been sold to Japan and later brought to mass market. Although most comfortable speaking Japanese, at Siegen he is currently learning how to react to daily situations in German.

Pepper first visited the Marienheim retirement home in Siegen-Weidenau. The management and caregivers were immediately excited, the elderly however reluctant at first. However, when Pepper was supposed to guess the reisdents’ age and often terribly misjudged his task, the spell was broken. “This shows that eldery quickly become curious and realize that they can have fun with Pepper, which immediately increases their acceptance towards him”, explains project manager Dr. Rainer Wieching. For example, whenever Pepper starts to dance, the seniors take a look at his movements and then joyfully mimic his movements or Tai Chi exercises.

The robot is supposed to practice fall prevention 

Pepper is already able to play mime. The elderly can take guesses and answer via a tablet attached to Pepper’s stomach. In reference to hangman they have several tries to solve the task. “Talking to the elderly and the caregivers, we learned that the elderly especially want to play memory games to pass the time. So we programmed something specifically for their needs”, explains Dr. Wieching.

A student group from the HCI master’s program  developed the functions of the game in a seminar. “It is particularly important to us that we always talk to users in advance to understand their needs and everyday practices. We can not fully empathize with them, so the seniors and caregivers tell us what they want and what can make their lives easier.”

Pepper is not only supposed to spread good mood. He should also help the elderly to practice physical exercises in terms of fall prevention in the future. The robot should actively address the seniors and motivate them to participate, explain the exercises and help with positive comments or tips.

Robots are never supposed to replace caregivers 

In Japan, where the demographic change is much more advanced than in the rest of the world, Peppers already work in shops and supermarkets, show customers the way to products or inform them about prices and ingredients. Some families have even bought them for their private homes. According to Dr. Wieching, Japanese generically show a higher acceptance rate towards robots. He furthermore explains: “Many Japanese believe that things can have a soul, thus also robots. Germans are more likely to feel threatened by technology and are afraid that the robot, like in science-fiction film, can be a danger to humans. ” In addition, many caregivers have concerns that the robots would cost them their jobs. “We never want to replace carers,” says Wieching.” Robots and humans should rather form hybrid teams and complement each other.

For this to work, the caregivers need to easily and quickly adapt the robot to the requirements of the patients via an app. For example, the robot has to behave differently towards a person suffering from dementia than someone who can not walk well. “The goal must be that persons without programming or IT knowledge can operate and configure Pepper,” says the project manager. That is one of the research foci of his team.

What happens when robots become increasingly involved in our private lives? 

However, they do not want to reinvent the wheel. The researchers from Siegen cooperate with colleagues from Kiel University of Applied Sciences and Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. The Japanese partners evaluate how people’s acceptance of robots in everyday life can be further enhanced, for example by using spiritual music or religious symbols from Japanese culture. “We still have a lot of research to do together until the robots can support us semi-autonomously or even fully autonomously in some aspects of care”, says Dr. Wieching. In the future, ethical, legal and social issues will also be a concern, not just robotic programming.

The Siegen robot should not get used to the name Pepper too much. At the summer festival of Marienheim on August 27th, the residents and guests will give him a new name.