(p. A1) TOKYO—Having a robot read scripture to mourners seemed like a cost-effective idea to the people at Nissei Eco Co., a plastics manufacturer with a sideline in the funeral business.
The company hired child-sized robot Pepper, clothed it in the vestments of Buddhist clergy and programmed it to chant several sutras, or Buddhist scriptures, depending on the sect of the deceased.
Alas, the robot, made by SoftBank Group Corp., kept breaking down during practice runs. “What if it refused to operate in the middle of a ceremony?” said funeral-business manager Osamu Funaki. “It would be such a disaster.”
Pepper was fired. The company ended its lease of the robot and sent it back to the manufacturer. After a rash of similar mishaps across Japan, in which Pepper botched its job at (p. A10) a nursing home and gave baseball fans a creepy feeling, some people are saying the humanoid itself will need a funeral soon.
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. . . , a Japanese hotel chain created a robot-operated hotel, with dinosaur-shaped robots handling front-desk duties, only to reverse course after the plan failed to save money and created more work for humans.
Pepper was given a perky demeanor and programmed to grasp human emotions and engage in basic conversation. It starred in some early demonstrations. But like a candidate who puts on a fine performance at his job interview only to drive his bosses crazy later, Pepper lacked the skills it said it had, say some of his managers.
In 2016, a Tokyo-area nursing-home operator called Ittokai introduced three units of Pepper, each at a cost of around $900 a month, to lead singing and exercises for elderly people at the home.
“Users got excited to have it early on because of its novelty,” said Masataka Iida, an executive at the company. “But they lost interest sooner than expected.” Mr. Iida said Pepper’s repertoire of exercise moves was limited and, owing to mechanical errors, it sometimes took unplanned breaks in the middle of its shift. After three years, the company pulled the plug.
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SoftBank also touted Pepper as a companion for the home. The initial batch of 1,000 units sold out in a minute despite the hefty price tag.
Technology journalist Tsutsumu Ishikawa said he “fell in love at first sight” after seeing Mr. Son, the SoftBank chief, present a futuristic picture of living with a chatty Pepper.
After arriving at the Ishikawa home, however, Pepper couldn’t recognize the faces of family members or carry on a proper conversation, said Mr. Ishikawa. The robot, connected to the cloud, is supposed to remember the family even after a breakdown, Mr. Ishikawa says, but when Pepper returned home after the repair of a sensor, Pepper greeted him, “Nice to meet you!”
He shipped the robot back to SoftBank in 2018 after spending at least $9,000 over the three-year life of his subscription services agreement; he wasn’t eligible for any form of refund.
“It was such a waste of money. I still regret it,” he said.
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(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 13, 2021, and has the title “Humanoid Robot Keeps Getting Fired From His Jobs.”)