August 1, 2021

French employees of Softbank Robotics fight to save the Nao and Pepper robots

This Tuesday, June 15, around thirty employees of the French division of Softbank Robotics demonstrated in front of the company’s offices in Issy-les-Moulineaux. They were protesting against a social plan announced on March 30, which aims to cut 165 out of 330 jobs. They symbolically scrolled to an employment center agency several copies of the Nao and Pepper robots, designed by their company.

No angry slogan shouted at the top of the lungs during this rather wise gathering, where discouragement and bitterness seemed to dominate. “All the departments are concerned, but more particularly the sales representatives, the after-sales service and the quality department, that is to say the technicians who ensure maintenance and repairs. », Explains one of the employees, who wishes to remain anonymous, like all those with whom we spoke.

The negotiations have been deadlocked for three weeks. Union representatives are calling for better starting conditions for those who would have to leave the company, but also for a real project for those who remain. Because the future of the flagship of French robotics seems badly engaged.

Pepper and Nao symbolize French Tech.

Global popularity for Nao and Pepper

Originally, there is the French company Aldebaran Robotics, created in 2005 by Bruno Maisonnier, who imagined Nao. This powerful humanoid robot remained a laboratory object for researchers for a long time, before Aldebaran was bought in the greatest secrecy by Softbank Robotics in 2012. Two years later, it was the launch with great fanfare of another humanoid robot: Pepper. The idea is then still to make a companion robot, intended to be marketed to the general public.

The Japanese group, however, prefers rather quickly to redirect it towards the business market, restricting it to a reception robot function. Pepper has made forays into Carrefour, Darty and SNCF stations.

Over time, Nao and Pepper have become very popular in France: Nao, for example, shared a show with Thierry Ardisson or danced on stage under the direction of choreographer Blanca Li. We also remember Nao’s coming to the Elysée, a visit during which François Hollande, then President of the Republic, had carried him like a baby.

Their aura even ended up becoming international. With, everywhere, the same amazed reception of the public vis-a-vis these humanoid machines with the debonair aspect and the empathic reactions.

Pepper robots in front of a Pôle emploi agency.

Robots that no longer evolve

In a press release, the French employees of the company say that it is this beautiful image that allowed the Softbank group to win partnerships with Saudi Arabia or Apple and to raise $ 100 billion to create the Vision Fund. , an investment fund dedicated to new technologies.

When angry employees are pointed out that Softbank Robotics has nonetheless marketed Pepper in Asia from 2015 and that sales have been unsuccessful, the answer is fired. “Softbank Robotics has not invested in it for about five years. Production has stagnated, whether in hardware or software. There have been no new features. It’s easy then to say that they are not commercially viable ”, protests one of the collaborators. And to point out the excellent financial results of Softbank, which accumulates a net profit of 37.8 billion euros. Enough to allow him to continue to invest in Softbank Robotics instead of deciding in the quick, according to the protesters.

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For those attending the rally, CEO Masayoshi Son allegedly exploited these robots extensively and abandoned them now that they are no longer useful to him.

It is not only for their jobs, but also for the survival of Softbank Robitics in France that employees are fighting today. “We are the only company in the world to mass produce humanoid robots. This plan will lead to a terrible loss of know-how ”, one of the demonstrators sadly concludes.