Miami Bank Deploys Child-Size Robot That's Always Watching, Always Learning

"Pepper" the robot
"Pepper" the robot Photo by Joshua Ceballos
Brickell's banking industry has a reputation for being a bit robotic. HSBC bank is aiming to fix that reputation — by deploying an actual robot.

Pepper is a small, humanoid robot with a childlike voice developed by SoftBank Robotics, a Japanese tech company. She (SoftBank says Pepper is gender neutral, but HSBC calls it she) is the new greeter at the bank's branch on Brickell Avenue.

The robot's purpose is to drive more business by engaging audiences with something fun and interesting, according to HSBC head of innovation Jeremy Balkin. Beyond giving customers information about the bank, including how to open a checking account or sign up for a new credit card, Pepper can also dance, tell jokes, and pose for a selfie.

"We asked ourselves, 'How do we make customers love banking again?' So we looked for something that was gamified and fun, and we came upon Pepper," Balkin says.
click to enlarge
Pepper can send you text messages with links to banking apps and the HSBC website to create an account if you share your phone number.
Photo by Joshua Ceballos
Balkin says Pepper won't take any jobs from bank tellers — she'll merely free up the time of trained employees by answering simple questions from customers. 

But there are other concerns about the little banker. In 2018, researchers from the Technical University of Denmark published a study outlining security problems inherent in Pepper's design. According to the report, Pepper can be easily hacked and controlled by outside attackers, and personal data such as passwords and usernames can be mined from the robot's systems. The researchers say Pepper's design follows a "trend in shallowness" that manufacturers have about the security of their products.

Kass Dawson, global head of marketing for SoftBank, says the company is aware of the security deficiencies noted in the report and is working on an operating system upgrade to address the issues within three to six months. In the meantime, Pepper isn't allowed to store personal information beyond a customer's cell phone number so she can send links via text.

The robot's ability to learn and recognize faces is another potential problem. SoftBank's clients can preprogram responses into Pepper, but her AI component is constantly learning how to better interact with humans — which means the robot is consistently computing how to interpret customers' responses and emotions. SoftBank is currently working with a company called Ever AI to develop facial recognition software so Pepper can understand speech and emotions from facial expressions beyond smiles and frowns.

According to Dawson, that data won't be shared with anyone outside the companies that own each robot. He adds that the facial recognition software won't be launched until SoftBank is sure Pepper is completely secure.

Already this week, Pepper has made quite an impression on bank staff and visitors at HSBC's Brickell location. Balkin, who comes from Australia, says he's most excited that she can understand his accent better than some of his coworkers.

"This little robot understood me right away, and her language understanding capabilities are better and better," Balkin says. "Her ability to seamlessly understand accents is great for the Miami market because it's so diverse."
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos