SoftBank Halts Production Of Iconic $1,800 Humanoid Robot As Sales Slump
Last week, SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son made waves when he told shareholders and reporters assembled for SoftBank’s 41st annual meeting that he envisions himself as a “21st-century Rothschild”, explaining that while Rothschild provided the capital to finance the industrial revolution, he and SoftBank are providing the capital to finance the 21st century’s AI revolution. For emphasis, Son shared the following slide from one of SoftBank’s notoriously quirky presentations.
Of course, Son’s obsession with advancing AI technology via the firm’s venture capital investment portfolio has been a notoriously mixed bag – though Son’s returns from a handful of successful bets have helped cushion the firm’s losses from blunders like the eye-popping valuation it assigned to WeWork. Even Son joked during the meeting that some of his backers say they like him “very much” as an entrepreneur, but not as an investor.
Well, in what appears to be the latest setback for SoftBank’s AI efforts, the company has just suspended production of Pepper, a humanoid robot that was me of Son’s favorite pet projects at the conglomerate. According to Bloomberg, the suspension comes as the robot, priced at $1,790 apiece, failed to make an impact with consumers. Inventory has gotten pretty backed up, and it could take a while for the company to clear it – if that ever happens. The suspension might not be permanent, as SoftBank left open the possibility that it might restart production if sales start to pick up. Only 27K Peppers were ever produced.
SoftBank is now in talks with its French robotics unit about potentially reducing headcount at the unit, which employs 330, according to BBG.
Marketed as ‘the first machine endowed with emotions’, SoftBank pushed Pepper aggressively in markets including the US and Japan, promising the gadget was sophisticated enough for tasks usually handled by clerks, receptionists and translators.
Although the robot is capable of expressing human-like body language like maintaining eye contact and engaging in limited small talk, it never caught on. Now, it looks like Pepper (assembled by Taiwanese iPhone-maker Hon Hai Precision Industry Co.) is destined to join Honda’s soccer-playing ASIMO and Sony’s QRIO as the latest impractical Japanese-designed robots that never caught on.
While Pepper was apparently equipped with the ability to perform some clerical work, the biggest complaint fielded by SoftBank was that it couldn’t vacuum, making it, in theory, less useful than a Roomba.
SoftBank has apparently already learned from this failure: it’s already marketing a more practical robot called Whiz which cleans floors for businesses (like an industrial Roomba). The Whiz robot has more “sophisticated” movements than Pepper, according to BBG.
Still, it’s success isn’t guaranteed. And at this point, we can’t help but wonder how much more money Masayoshi Son will sink into AI and robotics investments that, while certainly interesting, aren’t necessarily useful for commercial purposes.