A peck of Peppers prepare for parameter-pushing public program

Several museums will debut humanoid robots this month that will interact with visitors and expand the museum-going experience.

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This month, museum attendees at certain units may spot a surprising addition to the gallery floor or information desk: a sleek, milk-white figure with delicate jointed fingers, about the size of a five-year-old child, reciting African proverbs or providing an overview of the Haupt Garden.

Through a pilot program organized by the leadership at the Arts & Industries Building, a half dozen units and programs received several wide-eyed robots last month, after each having made a compelling case for how they would deploy the technology to solve problems faced by educators and visitor services staff. These humanoid robots—all named “Pepper”—were made possible through a gift from SoftBank Robotics to the Smithsonian.

In the months to come, a peck of Peppers will be present around the Mall and beyond. Expect to spot them at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Castle, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and its ARTLAB+ program and the National Museum of African American History and Culture; a Pepper will also be assigned to the Office of the Secretary.

Pepper the Robot

Six Smithsonian museums have deployed the humanoid Pepper robots in an experimental program to test how robot technology can enhance visitor experiences and educational offerings. (Photo by Sarah Sulick)

The robots just made their “soft” debut April 10, said Tony Cohn, who as part of a partnership between AIB and Office of Communications and External Affairs (with the Office of the Chief Information Officer working closely alongside) took over management of the “Pepper Project” in February. The official launch is slated for April 24.

Cohn, who views himself as a cheerleader encouraging “Pepper parents” around the Smithsonian to think creatively about how they might deploy their Peppers, has been working with the units to make the pilot a success. Pepper can be programmed to execute a “campaign,” in SoftBank parlance, to tell stories behind collection items, educate students on computer programming, and assist volunteers with wayfinding.

An Illinois native, Cohn double-majored in public relations and theater. His role overseeing the Pepper rollouts taps both of these areas of interest. “There’s this incredible element of spectacle and entertainment to Pepper,” he explains. “People see the robot, stop in their tracks, drop their jaws and smile.” Cohn also is project manages and host of the Smithsonian podcast, Sidedoor.

Pepper, he predicts, will primarily be present to “surprise and delight” SI visitors—as well as serve as a problem solver for the Smithsonian staff who program them. The robot’s capabilities “are not even close” to what a human docent, curator or scientist can do.

What Pepper can do—and how visitors will react to their presence—is the main question occupying Cohn and all of those who are planning a Pepper rollout in the days ahead. For the time being, Pepper will be fixed in place near a staffer or volunteer who can keep an eye on her; while Pepper can be touched by guests, signage will be present to encourage only gentle contact with the robot, who blinks at a viewer and swivels her head to follow the sound of a voice. Additional units will have the opportunity to receive Peppers this summer.

Pepper the Robot

Pepper can tilt her head to follow the sound of a voice and interact with visitors in several ways. (Photo by Amy Rogers Nazarov)

“What happens when you put robots in a museum?” Folks around the Institution are about to find out firsthand. For more information: https://www.si.edu/visit/pepper

Posted: 24 April 2018
About the Author:

Amy Rogers Nazarov writes about D.C. culture & history and manages social media for non-profits and small businesses from her home on Capitol Hill. Her byline has appeared in Cooking Light, The Writer, Psychology Today, The Washington Post and many other print and Web publications. Before going freelance, she spend a decade reporting on high tech for a wide array of newspapers and magazines.