Pepper the Robot Takes to the High Seas Working on Cruise Ships

AP Photo/Koji Sasahara
AP Photo/Koji Sasahara

After playing the role of personal companion, salesbot, as well as a student and English teacher, Pepper, the humanoid robot, can officially add “seafaring concierge” to its resume.

Joining two Carnival Corporation-owned ships, Costa Cruises and AIDA, at the end of April, the 4-foot android will engage the ships’ guests using its skill at reading human emotion. Pepper will start its adventure programmed to speak English, German, and Italian, and has the capability of being upgraded with additional languages at any time. Costa’s Chief Digital Officer Rahul Chakkara believes this opportunity has introduced a new level of guest-crew interaction.

There are thousands of interactions between our customers and our crew every hour. And we realized that our customer habits were changing significantly, and we needed to respond. In Europe, you have the additional complexity of these interactions happening in different languages. The thinking was, could we bring something to complement and enhance interaction and help our customers a bit more? We looked at Pepper and said this could be something quite interesting to help us help our customers along with our crew.

According to Chakkara, Pepper will be a “full crew member,” likely working in service- and labor-intensive areas. Beyond greeting passengers as they board the cruise ships, Pepper will offer dining, itinerary, and shore excursion details to the guests. Additionally, the company intends to use information gathered via guest interactions with the robot to make improvements where needed, although the collection of such raises potential security concerns.

Dr. Joanne Pransky, who has trademarked herself as “the world’s first robot psychiatrist” and was dubbed the “real world Susan Calvin” by prolific science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, feels Pepper’s robotic evolution will greatly benefit from the opportunity as well. “I think this is an excellent use for Pepper—to be in a controlled environment, learning and interacting with humans,” she said. “By being exposed to members of various cultural societies, this will greatly help to further develop Pepper’s ’emotional’ skills.”

With the addition of the autonomous employees, the Costa Group’s CEO Michael Thamm feels the company is continuing a “tradition of innovation,” noting that bringing a robot aboard the cruise ships is “an important step towards a digital future for our brands.”

Pepper isn’t the first robot to brave the high seas — The Royal Caribbean unveiled its android-staffed “Bionic Bar” on the Harmony of the Seas in 2014 — and certainly won’t be the last. With an investment of over a million euros, Costa is intending on supplementing the staff of its ships with Pepper and other autonomous workers by this summer.