News

With Smithsonian’s Blessing, Humanoid Robots Invade Our Museums

The Smithsonian is the first museum complex to integrate the interactive androids.

Pepper in front of the Smithsonian Castle (all photos courtesy Smithsonian)

The next time you visit a Smithsonian museum, the first greeting you get may come from a gleaming, four-foot-tall android extending their hand. This would be Pepper, one of 25 humanoid robots that were introduced two days ago to six Smithsonian spaces, from the Hirshhorn Museum to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Donated by their engineers at Softbank Robotics, the platoon of Peppers is intended to enhance the visitor experience and ensure that daily operations run smoothly.

Pepper in front of the Smithsonian Castle

Pepper, which was designed to interact with humans, is the first bot capable of recognizing our emotions. These models already work in an array of industries around the world, serving as receptionists in Belgian hospitals and even as priests in Japan that lead funerary rituals. While the robot has been on display in museums, the Smithsonian now represents the first museum complex to actually use these wide-eyed automata for their services.

“We see them as a new tool for the docents to use, especially since they are always paired with a person,” a spokesperson for Smithsonian told Hyperallergic, noting that the Peppers are “absolutely not replacing docents.”

Softbank Robotics donated the Peppers for an experimental, pilot program intended to help the Smithsonian solve problems, from boosting visitorship to “under-attended galleries” and encouraging greater engagement with artworks. While the robots can provide helpful information by answering commonly asked questions, they can also indulge in more lighthearted activities for which human docents do not always have the time (or patience); visitors can ask Pepper to dance, play games, and even pose for a selfie. While the robots currently do not have captioned speech, the Smithsonian said that it is working to caption images that appear on their screens and “will continue with our software partners to make Pepper as accessible as possible.”

Pepper saying hello to staff at the Smithsonian Castle

Peppers stationed at different museums will also be programmed with specific features. At the National Museum of African Art, for instance, Peppers will be able to translate Kiswahili proverbs at the forthcoming exhibition on Swahili arts. Meanwhile, those at the Hirshhorn can explain the process behind the creation of Ron Mueck’s “The Big Man” (2000). They will also work in the museum’s teen educational space ARTLAB+ to teach students how to code.

Pepper’s employee badge

The presence of an autonomous robot in museums might raise some concerns, whether about it, or even for it. Remember when a security robot in the nation’s capital drowned itself on the job? But the Smithsonian is taking precaution to ensure Pepper does not run amok or get into harms way, requiring that each one out on the floor is always with a museum educator or docent (and don’t worry, Pepper can’t actually move). By way of humoring the robots (and the public), each Pepper has even been issued its own security badge, featuring a portrait and an all-caps directive: “ESCORT REQUIRED.”

For those eager to meet Pepper, you do have some time to make it to one of the participating museums. There is no end date for the pilot, the spokesperson said, adding that Smithsonian is hoping to roll out even more Peppers in additional spaces in June, building on the program as it learns about the robots’ capabilities. A schedule of where and when visitors can see Pepper is posted on the Smithsonian’s website.

Like any other docent, Pepper, of course, should be treated with respect, so Hyperallergic also asked what its preferred pronouns are. The spokesperson responded: “A fun fact about Peppers: you can ask them if they are a boy or a girl. Their response: I’m not a girl or a boy, I’m a robot!”

Pepper at the Hirshhorn Museum
Pepper posing for a selfie with Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton
comments (0)