Are Robots Next For Retail? Alibaba's Latest Investment

Imagine walking into a retailer and instead of a person greeting you, there's a robot. A robot named Pepper, to be more specific.

Playing a role in the retail market is just one of the many roles that SoftBank envisions for its newest humanoid robot, which has rolled out in Japan with the help of a major investment from eCommerce giant Alibaba and manufacturer Foxconn.

“I think no matter you like it or you don’t, robots are going to be as popular as cars, as machines, as airplanes,” Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma said at a news conference, The Wall Street Journal reported. “Robots will be a part of the family.”

Together, Alibaba and Foxconn will each invest roughly $118 million (¥14.5 billion) in SoftBank Robotics Holdings Corp. and will each have a 20 percent stake in the company. Their investment will help create a model for Pepper and other robotics businesses to expand across global markets, Softbank said in a company news release, which noted its goal is to spread the development of the robotics industry worldwide. Foxconn will be the manufacture of Pepper, while Alibaba will help boost its eCommerce presence.

“As we enter the data technology era, robotics will become a critical field that catalyzes technological breakthroughs in numerous sectors such as health care, public services, research and at home," Ma said in a SoftBank news release.

"Our partnership with SoftBank and Foxconn combines the best hardware and software talent in the industry to pave the way for robotics research and development."

For those looking to pick up a Pepper of their own, the costs ring in at roughly $1,600, but also comes with monthly service fees of about $200 with a three year contract. To start, there will be about 1,000 Peppers available for commercial purchases, but then the company plans to roll out about 1,000 Peppers monthly.

According to WSJ's report on the robot's release, about 500 Peppers have been given to developers to "create smartphone-style applications for the robots," which would connect the robots to the Internet, allowing it to incorporate apps that would make Pepper more humanlike. Some apps would even make Pepper sing and dance.

What's unique about Pepper is its supposed ability to be able to read and express human emotions. This would make it the first humanoid robot with the capability to do so, which could also make it appealing for the retail industry. Pepper is designed to recognize human voices and understand facial expressions, as well as body language. Pepper can even talk.

To see more of what Pepper can do, check out the YouTube video below:

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The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.

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