A Robot Called Pepper Can Teach Visitors Swahili at the Smithsonian

Pepper the Robot at the 2017 New Yorker TechFest in New York City
Pepper the Robot at the 2017 New Yorker TechFest in New York City
Brian Ach, Getty Images for The New Yorker

"Hakuna matata" may very well be the only Swahili phrase that many people outside of East Africa have ever heard (thanks, Lion King), but a 4-foot-tall humanoid robot named Pepper is working to change that.

The National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.—part of the Smithsonian Institution's network—is using Pepper to explain the meaning of Swahili words and phrases that appear in its artworks. The Smithsonian says it's the first museum complex in the world to use this particular robot, which was developed by SoftBank Robotics in 2014, made available to Japanese consumers in 2015, and later released to a wider market.

Considered to be the world's first robot capable of reading emotions, Pepper is multi-talented. He has already found a home in several different Smithsonian sites, where he interacts with visitors, answers questions, plays games, tells stories, and even dances.

Courtesy of Smithsonian

For the Museum of African Art's new exhibition on Swahili arts, which opens on May 9, Pepper will be tasked with helping visitors better understand the ways in which African art influences global culture, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

"Proverbs and words are so important in African art and in the context of the culture, so having Pepper reinforce those ideals is so valuable," Michelle Edwards, the museum coordinator who wrote the robot's script, told the magazine.

Swahili is spoken on the east coast of Africa, and it's a lingua franca—or bridge language—in Tanzania, Kenya, Congo, and Uganda. The language was greatly influenced by the region's contact with Arabic-speaking traders over several centuries and contains many loan words from Arabic. Even the word swahili itself comes from the Arabic sawahili, meaning "of the coast." Today, it has between 100 and 140 million speakers around the world.

Training Pepper to speak Swahili correctly, though, was no easy feat. Edwards reportedly spent weeks trying to get the pronunciation just right.

SoftBank, which has a partnership with the Smithsonian, donated about 30 robots to its network of museums. In addition to the African Art Museum, Peppers are peppered throughout several other Smithsonian sites, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Castle, and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

Outside of the U.S., Peppers have taken over Belgian hospitals (as receptionists), Japanese funerals (as Buddhist priests), and even a Scottish grocery store (although, after a week, he was relieved of his duties as a customer liaison due to being generally unhelpful).

[h/t Smithsonian Magazine]

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LEGO isn’t just for big kids. Toddlers and preschoolers can start their LEGO journey early by constructing an adorable tea party with their favorite Frozen characters. As they set up Elsa and Olaf’s ice seats, house, and tea fixings, they’ll work on fine-motor, visual-spatial, and emotional skills. Building the set from scratch will enable them to put their own creative spin on a favorite movie, and will prepare them for building more complicated sets as they get older.

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Reconstruct the First Family’s home (and one of America’s most famous landmarks) by erecting this display model of the White House. The model, which can be split into three distinct sections, features the Executive Residence, the West Wing, and the East Wing of the complex. Plant lovers can keep an eye out for the colorful rose garden and Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, which flank the Executive Residence. If you’re unable to visit the White House anytime soon, this model is the next best thing.

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Road trip lovers and camping fanatics alike will love this vintage-inspired camper. Based on the iconic 1962 VW vehicle, LEGO’s camper gets every detail right, from the trademark safari windshield on the outside to the foldable furniture inside. Small details, like a “Make LEGO Models, Not War” LEGO T-shirt and a detailed engine add an authentic touch to the piece. Whether you’re into old car mechanics or simply want to take a trip back in time, this LEGO car will take you on a journey you won’t soon forget.

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Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

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