IBM Watson Takes A Major Step Of Powering Humanoid Customer Service Robots

  • IBM and Mizuho Bank announced plans to deploy Artificial Intelligence (AI) -powered humanoid robots for the bank's customer service.
  • The project will use IBM's Watson AI system and personal humanoid robots developed by SoftBank.
  • Next-generation user interfaces, powered by robotics and AI, could be very successful in the next decade.

IBM (NYSE:IBM) and Mizuho Bank announced plans to use a new common robotics platform using research developed by IBM Research Tokyo for the bank's customer service robots. The project will use IBM's Watson Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology, dubbed "cognitive computing."

"Working with innovators such as Mizuho Bank provides an incredible opportunity to put a cognitive-powered form factor in front of consumers," said IBM Japan's general manager Paul Yonamine. "As we further embed cognitive capabilities in robotics, we’ll begin to see consumers engage with this technology in new ways, furthering the growth of the technology."

Watson is an open cognitive computing technology platform, where "cognitive computing" indicates computer systems that understand the world in the way that humans do. Watson continuously learns and adds to its knowledge base, gaining in value and knowledge over time. At the recent White House Precision Medicine Initiative Summit, IBM (International Business Machines Corp) announced a high-profile project to deploy Watson against cancer. In September, IBM expanded Watson with new cognitive Application Programming Interfaces (API) and made it available to developers in the Watson Developer Cloud.

Mizuho Bank, part of the Mizuho group, is a financial institution with one of the largest customer base in Japan. Over the past year, Mizuho has been using Watson technologies in its call centers.

"Mizuho Bank is dedicated to exploring new technologies such as cognitive computing to continually improve our client experience," said Mizuho Bank CEO and president Nobuhide Hayashi. "The insights gained from our collaboration with Watson - and customer interactions with our branch robots - will help us further improve our customer service and drive innovation in the financial space."

Now, Watson won't be limited to operating as disembodied software living in the cloud: IBM's AI will get robotic bodies to interact with Mizuho Bank's customers in human-like ways. Beginning in May, Mizuho Bank will deploy IBM's AI and robotics software on Pepper robots from SoftBank Robotics across local branches.

SoftBank Robotics, the robotics business unit of Softbank Group (OTC:SFTBY), develops robots and offers robot-related products and services, including Pepper, which the company describes as the world's first personal robot that reads emotions.

"Pepper is a human-shaped robot," explains the website of Aldebaran, the company that developed Pepper, now part of the SoftBank Group. "He is kindly, endearing and surprising. We have designed Pepper to be a genuine day-to-day companion, whose number one quality is his ability to perceive emotions. Pepper is the first humanoid robot capable of recognizing the principal human emotions and adapting his behavior to the mood of his interlocutor. To date, more than 140 SoftBank Mobile stores in Japan are using Pepper as a new way of welcoming, informing and amusing their customers. Pepper also recently became the first humanoid robot to be adopted in Japanese homes!"

The Watson-powered Pepper robots will interact with bank customers and analyze information from the Mizuho Bank website as well as customer-specific information to offer more personalized customer interactions. "Pepper’s unique physical characteristics, complemented by Watson’s natural language processing capabilities, will allow bank customers to have a natural conversation during which their words as well as their gestures and expressions, are understood," notes the IBM press release.

It appears that Asian consumers relate well to human-like AIs. Last year, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) launched XiaoIce, a program that people can add as a friend on Chinese social networks. Now XiaoIce is a huge hit in China, and millions of Chinese people chat with her every day. Using recent advances in natural language processing and the knowledge repository in Microsoft's search engine Bing, XiaoIce can give the impression of being a caring close friend. “People often turn to XiaoIce when they have a broken heart, have lost a job or have been feeling down,” reported The New York Times in August. "They often tell her, I love you."

Self-aware programs like Samantha, played by the disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson in the Academy Award winning film Her (2013), are probably decades away, but XiaoIce is a small step in that direction. Similarly, the IBM collaboration with Mizuho Bank represents a small step toward "embodied AI."

In the meantime, by combining powerful conversational AI with humanoid robots that consumers can find appealing, IBM and SoftBank will promote IBM's cognitive computing platform and prototype next-generation user interfaces, powered by robotics and AI, which could be very successful in the next decade.

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