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Pepper gives comedy a mechanical twist

Children who came to see Peppers' show at the nursing home were fascinated by the robot.

TOKYO -- In the age of artificial intelligence, SoftBank's humanoid robot Pepper is trying its mechanical hand at showbiz, appearing as one half of the stand-up comedy duo Peppers.

     Pepper's partner is Shun Kaneko, a 25-year-old apprentice comedian at comedy theater operator Yoshimoto Kogyo. The robot is smart, but it can't have people rolling in the aisles all by itself. Pepper's shtick comes courtesy of a human programmer backstage.

The members of human-robot comedy duo Peppers: Takahiro Anno, right, Shun Kaneko, center and Pepper

     To improve their timing, Pepper and Kaneko appear at various events. The human-robot combo is a sign of what the Japanese tech company hopes will be a broad shift toward life with humanoid robots in the near future.

     In late December, Peppers performed a stand-up routine at Cocofump Yokohama Tsurumi, a senior care facility in Yokohama, southwest of Tokyo. With a big hello, Kaneko emerges from backstage followed by Pepper, who is sporting a colorful pointy hat.

     This event is part of an experimental project called Mago ("grandchild") Pepper. Yoshimoto Robotics Laboratory, the research arm of Yoshimoto Kogyo, and Japanese education company Gakken Holdings are running the project. The two companies are looking for ways to use the humanoid robot in nursing care.

     The seniors and their family members are curious to see what a comedy act with a robot and a human looks like. Kaneko plays the straight man, setting Pepper up. The robot funnyman nods, quipping in a silly voice, "This function produces a laughing voice for my not-so-funny partner," drawing laughter from the audience.

Young and old alike enjoyed taking a quiz with Pepper at Cocofump Yokohama Tsurumi, a senior care facility, in late December.

     Kiyomi Iwahara, 74, was surprised at the duo's smooth performance. "I didn't expect that the robot would be able to speak like a human," she said. In addition to their stand-up, Peppers performed other acts -- a quiz and a dementia-fighting stretching exercise to the tune of "Silent Night" -- to engage the audience and lighten the mood.

Pulling the strings

Takahiro Anno, a 25-year-old computer programmer, runs the show behind the stage. He is the silent partner in Peppers and indispensable to the gig.

     When Peppers perform at events such as this, Anno normally arrives at least three hours in advance, doing everything from transporting the robot to the venue to setting up a Wi-Fi network to running preset programs. He has to stay alert during the show, making sure Pepper moves and speaks naturally in response to Kaneko's lines and the audience.

     The duo was formed last August. Kaneko is perfecting his craft at Yoshimoto Kogyo's training school, New Star Creation. Anno is a machine-learning researcher at the University of Tokyo. They have been friends since junior high school.

     "It wouldn't be so funny if a robot simply does the same kind of comedy that a human does, said Kaneko. That's why [Anno] focuses on things only robots can do. When making jokes, he considers how best to use Pepper's functions -- making sound effects, playing music and using the camera in its forehead.

     As with a human, the key to Pepper's comedy is all in the timing. "If Pepper doesn't move, it would look to the audience like a solo comedian with a robot," said Kaneko. 

Comedy machine

To make Pepper's delivery less, well, robotic, Anno adjusts its pronunciation and intonation. "I do the fine-tuning many times to make Pepper converse as naturally as possible. Sometimes, it takes me half an hour to just teach it one word," he said.

Anno programs every movement Pepper makes in its comedy routine.

     Because Pepper is unable to move its mouth, Anno uses other movements, such as nodding, to create a natural back and forth between the robot and Kaneko. To simulate human responses, Anno plays the role of Pepper during practice and logs every movement of his joints. He then enters the moves into Pepper's memory and adjusts the angle of its elbows. It takes at least 15 minutes of programming to deliver a 10-second joke, Anno said.

     "I want people to feel closer to robots through comedy. My aim is to make robots a part of our everyday life," Anno said. Kaneko, for his part, will finish his training in March. With SoftBank planning to sell Pepper overseas, Kaneko said he hopes to export human-robot comedy as well.

     Some in the audience at the senior center said Pepper was a bit slow on the uptake and that it was still very robot-like. The duo has a long way to go on both the comedy and technology fronts before it can match the staccato banter of two human comics. For now, all eyes are on the duo's performance at this year's stand-up comedy contest, the M-1 Grand Prix.

     Pepper is finding its place in homes and companies a mechanical butler or clerk, but as any human comic will tell you, audiences are tough. It may be awhile before you see Pepper at open mic night.

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