Billionaire Masayoshi Son is facing a tough challenge in growing his robotics business in Europe. His conglomerate Softbank bought French robot maker Aldebaran in 2013 for $100 million. Two years later it released a waist-high robot named Pepper. With a high-pitched voice and doe-eyed, friendly gaze that follow’s your own as you move around it, Pepper exudes cuteness, building off Aldebaran’s expertise in building machines that can pick up on human emotions.
How many “Peppers” has Softbank Robotics Europe sold so far? Around 12,000, each costing 20,000 euros ($23,200). “It’s an amazing result,” says Nicolas Boudot, the company’s sales and marketing director. “But it’s peanuts.”
Many of these sales are pilots across the world, such as the 25 Peppers that have been deployed at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., or the 14 Carrefour grocery stores in Spain that have a Pepper guiding shoppers to the right products.
The broader challenge for Softbank’s robotics business is scaling up from the experimentation its been doing with clients in the last two years.
“Our first priority is extending all these wonderful, nice pilot projects we have spread around the world, turn that into real, more massive deployment, and we’re still figuring out how we do that,” Boudot says.
That first mass deployment will be in retail, says Boudot, pointing to an existing large-scale project with Renault in which 100 Pepper robots are acting as concierges for dealership customers.
Boudot believes that current clients experimenting with just a couple of Pepper robots will come back for hundreds more.
It’s not the wildest notion—in Japan at least. There the Amazushi restaurant chain has, for instance, deployed a Pepper robot in each of its 400 outlets.
But Japan is years ahead of the rest of the world in embracing robots, with the government encouraging their development to help care for its ageing population.
Cultural differences are part of Softbank’s challenge. In France, for instance, Pepper was meant to be helping shoppers in 21 local Carrefour stores. But that deployment is on hold on sensitivity grounds after the company laid off 2,000 staff earlier this year.
“It’s difficult to have robots when you are getting rid of people,” says Boudot on the sidelines of the VivaTech conference in Paris on Thursday. The French have yet to welcome robots into their lives as readily as the Japanese.
There were already reports that a culture clash between the French management at Aldebaran and Japanese managers at Softbank led to the resignation of Aldebaran’s founder, Bruno Maisonnier, in February 2015. (Maisonnier is now leading Paris startup AnotherBrain, which makes AI chips for self-driving cars and robotics.)
With hundreds of international companies in its portfolio already, Softbank has plenty of experience merging disparate workforces into one corporate culture. The challenge looks tough for its FANUC robotics division though, as it now also involves bringing in Waltham, Massachusetts-based Boston Dynamics together with its team in France. Softbank bought Boston Dynamics from Google in 2017 for an undisclosed sum.
Boudot says that his team are talking “daily” with their counterparts at Boston Dynamics about ways of working together, as well as with other high-tech companies that Softbank is picking up through its $100 billion Vision Fund. Two of Boudot’s team from Paris have already flown over to Massachusetts to work more closely with the Boston Dynamics team, he says.
Having bought the mobile-chipset designer ARM, along with Aldebaran, Boston Dynamics and more robotics and AI companies with his Vision Fund investments, Masa Son is bringing some of the world’s most exciting robotics companies together under one umbrella.
Whether he can get them all working together efficiently will determine how soon they can release impactful technology to the market and scale up in the way Boudot is hoping.