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SoftBank powers down on Pepper the robot production
SoftBank's concierge robot 'Pepper' at A First Bank branch in Taipei, Taiwan. Photo: Reuters

The move by the Japanese firm to shrink its robotics business is a defeat for chief executive Masayoshi Son’s plans to make it a leader in the industry

 

Japan’s SoftBank has suspended production of its humanoid robot Pepper, a company spokeswoman revealed on Tuesday, seven years after the conglomerate unveiled the signature chatty white android to much fanfare. 

Production of the humanoid Pepper, touted as the first robot with “a heart”, was stopped last year, according to sources.

Built by Foxconn in China, Pepper was meant to help plug labour shortages but struggled to find a global customer base. It’s said only 27,000 were produced.

 

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Pepper robots, used to greet people in stores and hotels in Japan and around the world, had become a symbol of SoftBank’s strategy of pouring resources into new technology including artificial intelligence. 

The pullback reflects the fading of Chief Executive Masayoshi Son’s plan to make SoftBank the leader in the robotics industry, producing human-like machines that could serve customers and babysit kids. 

As part of the retrenchment, SoftBank plans to eliminate about half of its 330 staff positions in France in September, according to four sources and documents, cutting into the historical heart of the business, whose origins lie in SoftBank’s 2012 acquisition of French robotics firm Aldebaran. 

 

STAFF CUT

Half of the staff has already been cut from smaller sales operations in the United States and Britain, three of the sources said, with employees in Japan redeployed from the robotics business.

In France, negotiations on layoffs are ongoing with final numbers not decided, a SoftBank spokesperson said. Staff have also been laid off in the US and UK and redeployed in Japan, the spokesperson said.

SoftBank “will continue to make significant investments in next-generation robots to serve our customers and partners,” the French robotics business said in a statement.

 

OPTIMISTIC VISION 

SoftBank Robotics launched the chest-high Pepper in 2014 and it became the face of the conglomerate, embodying Son’s optimistic vision of a technology-powered future as he built his overseas investing operations. 

Behind the scenes, culture clashes between the French business and Tokyo management hurt the robot’s development and its sales were impacted by its limited functionality and unreliability. 

SoftBank, which propped up Pepper sales by placing the robot in its mobile phone stores, has shifted focus to products such as cleaning robot Whiz. The French business was increasingly sidelined, sources said.

 

  • Reporting by Reuters and AFP

 

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Sean OMeara

Sean O'Meara is an Editor at Asia Financial. He has been a newspaper man for more than 30 years, working at local, regional and national titles in the UK as a writer, sub-editor, page designer and print editor. A football, cricket and rugby fan, he has a particular interest in sports finance.

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