A robot named Pepper is hard at work reminding mall-goers in Paris to wear a mask, in a pedestrian effort to help curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, according to a recent YouTube video from SoftBank Robotics Europe.
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Robot warns mall-goers in Paris to wear a mask
The child-sized robot is stationed in a mall in Paris, and gently reminds passersby to don their masks to reduce the chance of spreading the COVID-19 illness, reports the CBC. As of writing, COVID-19 cases in France have seen an upsurge in the last month, with a current tally of 27.6 million people infected, according to The New York Times.
"It's a reminder, a little reminder. You know, we are human, and sometimes I happen to remove my mask when I get off the bus because I forget the rules, and I put it on as I enter the office because the robot reminds me to," said Jonathan Boiria of SoftBank Robotics of Pepper the robot, according to the CBC report. "It's important. We all make mistakes. We all forget."
Pepper the robot entertains, assists in multiple languages
Upon encountering a human with a mask, the robot thanks them for bringing one. To navigate his local environment, Pepper makes a visual scan of the area. Users may create and set local points of interest, to maximize the robot's interaction with consumer foot-traffic.
Mall-goers can access a menu on a torso-attached flatscreen device that resembles an iPad. Pepper can even carry out guide duties, "walking" humans to the nearest restroom facilities or a specific business in the area — which means it could serve as a waypoint for children who have become accidentally separated from parents, and alert mall authorities. However, this is not yet confirmed.
The robot even has manners: he automatically avoids human contact unless queried, and will even help consumers decide what kind of products — like shoes — they want to buy.
With a given range of 426 ft (130 m), the robot automatically uses a charging Pod when his battery runs low. Perhaps the most noteworthy feature is Pepper's ability to speak multiple languages. In a recent video from SoftBank Robotics Europe, we hear it speak Spanish, French, and English — of course, additional languages may be available.
Promobot robot in Times Square
While Pepper isn't the first robot deployed to help curb the spread of the COVID-19 illness, it's definitely one of the useful ones. In February — the early days of the pandemic — a robot in Times Square called the Promobot tried and failed to lighten the public mood as it descended into the depths of coronavirus blues.
In sum it was a laggy iPad housed in a robot shell, its LED-lit face staring blankly up at passersby like a drugged puppy hoping to come by and impress the very ex-best-friend that left it there.
Boston Dynamics' robot dog Spot fights COVID-19
A later entrant into the robot-versus-coronavirus story from Boston Dynamics was more successful. In April, Spot the robot dog was equipped with an iPad and a two-way radio to help healthcare workers carry out video conferences with socially-distant patients. This allowed medics to analyze patients without risking exposure to the virus.
Earlier this month, a team of researchers from MIT and Brigham and Women's Hospital published a study on a pre-print website suggesting Spot the robot dog be adapted to take patients' vitals and transmit the results to the doctor at another location.
"In robotics, one of our goals is to use automation and robotic technology to remove people from dangerous jobs," said Henwei Huang, an MIT postdoc, according to an MIT blog post. "We thought it should be possible for us to use a robot to remove the health care worker from risk of directly exposing themselves to the patient."
The most advanced robot technology from Boston Dynamics, SoftBank Robotics Europe, and elsewhere continue to place robots into service in varying bids to help the collective fight to curb the spread of COVID-19 illness. While it may at times be an uncanny experience to see robots where humans or no one used to be, it's also a testament to the versatility of robotics. Little to nothing, it seems — not even a global pandemic — can slow their advance.