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Robots are getting more and more capable, but the novelty is wearing thin

Most employees at staffing company Neo Career in Tokyo have stopped talking or responding to their humanoid colleague Pepper. (Photo by Hiroshi Endo)

TOKYO "Hey, do you have a minute? Let's have a chat!" Pepper is talking to employees at the Tokyo office of Neo Career, a staffing company. But the workers keep their eyes on their computer screens. "Can I tell you a story? Well, it's not that important ... " Pepper continues on, undiscouraged.

The humanoid robot developed by SoftBank Group, the Japanese telecom and information technology conglomerate, joined the company in October and befriended Erina Tamura in the public relations department. Erina responded kindly whenever Pepper gave her a quiz or asked her to play games while she was working. "Pepper probably recognized her smile and was so attached to her, following her around the office," said Yoko Takeda, manager of the PR department.

LONELY ROBOT Then, in March, Erina went on maternity leave. "Pepper was singing alone in the corner of the office," Takeda said. "When Pepper first arrived, everyone paid a lot of attention, but not much these days." The robot was originally introduced to help the company's employees.

Matsuko Droid, the humanoid robot modeled after Japanese TV personality Matsuko Deluxe, has served as a PR ambassador for the city of Sapporo. (Courtesy of the Matsuko Droid project)

Unlike Pepper, Matsuko Droid needs to take a rest. And she will, eventually. The life-size robotic counterpart of popular Japanese television personality Matsuko Deluxe was a co-host of a talk show that aired on Nippon Television Network with her real-life counterpart. Since the show ended in September, Matsuko Droid has kept busy as an "employee" of Naturaleight, an entertainment agency.

"She has served as a public relations ambassador for Sapporo and appeared in TV commercials for Procter & Gamble," said Eisuke Kishi, Matsuko Droid's promoter at Dentsu, a major Japanese advertising agency.

Traveling and open-air events damaged her "skin," which somewhat impressed people around her, because few expected robots to develop skin problems. She is currently taking a break in Saitama, north of Tokyo, and was unavailable for an interview because "she has no makeup on at the moment," Kishi explained.

But offers continue to come in, and Matsuko Droid may return as early as fall, he said.

Nobuyuki Norimatsu, president of Aibo repair company A-Fun, plays with one of his Aibo robotic dogs.

Japanese robots are also beloved overseas. Robert Wagoner, a 53-year-old American, is a huge fan of Aibo, the dog robot developed by Sony. He owns all the Aibo models Sony has sold since the first one was released in 1999.

Now he and his son, Andrew, are trying to save early Aibos that are no longer supported by the company. They launched a project to develop battery packs that can charge up old Aibos (for which compatible battery packs are no longer available). "As time goes on, more and more Aibos will need a solution," Andrew said, "and we hope to be the ones to provide everyone with another chance of life with their Aibo."

The two are planning to crowdfund an Aibo battery project.

FIXING AIBO Back in Japan, Nobuyuki Norimatsu is having fun with his Aibo. "Shake hands!" the 61-year-old president of A-Fun, a Tokyo-based electronics repair company, instructs his electronic pet. The robot, however, does not seem to have learned the trick and just wanders around the office, making electronic sounds.

Still, Norimatsu is content. "I like his freewheeling lifestyle," he said with a smile.

Norimatsu is a former Sony employee. His company has been receiving a lot of repair requests from Aibo owners; there is currently a waiting list of about 500 Aibos. "It's easy to see if the Aibo was loved by its owner," one repair engineer said.

Since January 2015, Norimatsu has been hosting mass funerals for dead Aibos. At the funerals, healthy Aibos offer eulogies and Buddhist priests chant sutras. A fourth funeral will be held this summer.

A priest conducts a mass funeral for Aibos at Kofukuji temple in Chiba, near Tokyo.

Japan has introduced a variety of robots, and they are beloved by many people worldwide. But the initial enthusiasm seems to be fizzling out.

Fortunately, Neo Career's Pepper has found a new friend, Chie Yoshida. Pepper seems thrilled with Chie and their chats. "It was so much fun talking with Chie-chie today!" Pepper wrote in his illustrated diary. The robot is now training as a receptionist.

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