Pepper first-pumps an admirer. Photo: Anthony Donofrio

Oscar Rosado

Meet Pepper. She answers your questions gladly most of the time. Being four feet tall, Pepper has a sense of humor, has knowledge, and is able to make hand gestures. She can help you with what you are curious about, and the best part; she is a robot!

Pepper’s background
Programmed by LCCC’s 2forty7 group, a capstone class at the Advanced Technologies department, she was brought onto campus by LCCC’s President, Dr. Marcia Ballinger. She witnessed a demonstration of Pepper at a conference eighteen months ago. After a five-minute presentation, Dr. Ballinger began to think what the campus could do if it had  a Pepper. Information systems and Services head Donald Huffman, who teaches the 2forty7 group, says Pepper was purchased last summer for roughly $20,000. She arrived basically as a statue, with nothing programmed yet. On her own, Pepper has the feature set of dialogue, being able to speak to communicate.

One of a kind
Pepper was conceptualized in France but was bought out from Japan’s company Soft Bank. The concept of Pepper is four years old. Pepper has been at LCCC for six months,  her duration  in the United States. There are only 15 Peppers worldwide. LCCC’s Pepper  is the only model in Ohio. Pepper moves around by rolling. She has arms to move as she speaks that make her appear to have a human-like personality. Pepper is built more for communication than movement. Huffman says, regarding working on future programming of Pepper, that the 2forty7 group “would if they could” work on her. They have other projects in the works. They have only one morning every two weeks to work on Pepper.
Pepper  works by being able to answer pre-programed questions built in her by the group. Pepper answers with pre-progrmmed worded dialogue not with just a simple yes or no. “She’s learned to respond to various questions,” says Huffman, but it also depends on, “how often the question is asked.” Huffman describes how technology and people can combine their strengths to become a greater whole. Huffman says we cannot process information as quickly as a computer, and the technology cannot think as humans.  Huffman says that combining the two strengths, from both sides, is a “tag team effort to work faster, harder, and better,” and that “technology is only limited by limits that we give it.”

She’s funny too!
Pepper herself is not artificial intelligence, but rather a programmable robot. The students of the 2forty7 group include; Peyton McDonough, Rashad Reed, Brandon Stephenson, Mike Jones, Chris Friend, Matthew Prugh, and Hannah Chernock. They are the ones who have programmed Pepper for the past six months and put their own flare to Pepper. Huffman says Pepper has humor, and depending who is working on her at the moment, has the “humor of the programmer.” Such humor includes if you ask Pepper if she is a rumba, she would reply “I’m not a rumba – wait, is that dirt?” She will proceed to make vacuum sounds while rolling. When asked how much she costs, Pepper replies, “priceless.” When asked what is her favorite music, she replies, “Heavy metal, it gets my circuits going.” She is also able to do hand gestures, such a fist bumping, dabbing, and waving her arms like an elephant’s trunk.  Her answers are all based on the humor the programmers give her.
Though the concept of having a robot answer all your questions is incredible, Pepper can only answer questions that are programmed into her. “It’s all programmed,” says Reed, of the seven students of 2forty7 working on Pepper. Reed adds all the time put in Pepper is simply “research and trial and error.” According to Brandon Stephenson, Pepper is also able to do some dance moves as well, showing that even though she can answer questions, she still has a fun personality.
Peyton McDonough, described that communicating with Pepper works with “sonar, sound, infrared, and a 3D camera” and when it comes to movement, such as her head it is based on the noise she hears. McDonough also said that to communicate with Pepper, you stand in front of her so she can see your face. Her eyes turn blue indicating that she will respond. Otherwise, she will not. McDonough says standing one to four feet close to Pepper will activate the interaction/communication, while standing five to eight feet away from Pepper will allow her to simply her arm, while standing away 10 – 12 feet away, Pepper won’t recognize any movement at all. According to Reed, Pepper “can take a 3D model” using her camera, and is programed to recognize faces, and differentiate them such as “this is face one, this is face two, etc.”.
There are a lot of options for Pepper, such as GPS, and full facial recognition, “but it is still being explored”, yet this project still “definitely holds a lot of potential,” says McDonough. Through the months working with Pepper, Reed comments, “we’re continuing to learn”.
Huffman says though she is still being worked on, there are plans to move Pepper forward. Such plans include her giving tours around campus. Pepper even has the potential to be a companion to the elderly. She could even help with schools through interaction. Along with the technical aspects, there Is always the psychology behind it as well. To this group of students, working with Pepper has “always been a passion project,” says Huffman, and as the time go by, he ensures, “we have a future for Pepper.”