On a gloomy October morning, Smithsonian staff members at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden woke up one of their employees from an office and headed to the third floor. Soon after, the museum doors opened, and visitors were welcomed with a surprise.
“Hello, I am Pepper.”
Visitors were intrigued. That’s because the simple greeting didn’t come from a typical Smithsonian staffer.
Pepper is a four-foot-tall humanoid robot with wheels for legs. It not only speaks but also reacts to people and their movements. Smithsonian visitors were a little nervous to see Pepper’s head and eyes follow them as they walked away or toward the wide-eyed robot. Its arm and finger movements are almost lifelike.
Mila Zaragoza, 9, from California, reacted with a big smile when she heard Pepper’s friendly, high-pitched voice say hello. “It could communicate with people. It’s really cool.” Mila asked Pepper to do something fun, and they busted a few moves near a sculpture called Big Man.
Pepper’s full-time job is to greet and provide information to people visiting Smithsonian museums in Washington. The Smithsonian placed Pepper in the Hirshhorn to encourage interactive learning about the museum’s modern art collection. A tablet on Pepper’s chest shares stories when visitors ask the robot about exhibits and the inspiration behind them.
“Pepper has the capability of analyzing expression and tone of voice,” said Kristi Delich, deputy director of the Smithsonian’s Office of Visitor Services. “It can pick up if you are confused, happy or sad, so it tries to [react to] those emotions by coming up with a response or a follow-up question.”
One visitor asked Pepper to play a game called Music Boxes, an option located on Pepper’s tablet. After Pepper told them what to do, they were still confused how to play. So Pepper explained again.
“Make music in between my arms,” Pepper said as its arms stretched out. Pepper can make a melody based on the hand movements of guests.
Opal Bernstein, 8, and her brother Asa, 6, from Takoma Park, Maryland, had never seen a robot. They asked Pepper if they could take a selfie.
“I’m sure we look great!” Pepper responded after the photo.
“If I had a robot like Pepper, I would make it do my homework and make sugar cookies with me!” Asa said.
Unfortunately for Asa, Pepper doesn’t bake. At least, for now.
Pepper’s handlers, known as “parents,” will be able to program those robots to do whatever they want. Who knows? Pepper the baker could be the next big thing.
At the end of the long workday, one of Pepper’s parents took the robot to get some sleep. The parent placed a hand on Pepper’s head, and its body tilted down into a resting position. Pepper spent the night getting charged to go on another robotic adventure.
Daily, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Thursdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to noon and 2 to 3 p.m.
Mondays-Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, 10 to 11 a.m.; Mondays and Wednesdays, 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.