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SoftBank to start selling personal robots next year

By Teppei Kasai and Yoshiyasu Shida

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's SoftBank Corp said on Thursday it will start selling human-like robots for personal use by February, expanding into a sector seen key to addressing labour shortages in one of the world's fastest ageing societies.

The robots, which the mobile phone and Internet conglomerate envisions serving as baby-sitters, nurses, emergency medical workers or even party companions, will sell for 198,000 yen ($1,900) and are capable of learning and expressing emotions, Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son told a news conference.

A prototype will be deployed this week, serving customers at SoftBank mobile phone stores in Japan, he added. The sleek, waist-high robot, named Pepper, accompanied Son to the briefing, speaking to reporters in a high-pitched, boyish voice.

"People describe others as being robots because they have no emotions, no heart. For the first time in human history, we're giving a robot a heart, emotions," Son said.

The robots were developed by French robotics company Aldebaran, in which SoftBank took a stake in 2012, and will be manufactured by Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry Co Ltd.

They will use cloud computing to share data that can develop their own emotional capabilities. Son said they would not share an owner's personal information.

Japan's population is one of the most rapidly ageing in the world and the government hopes companies can offset a decline in the labour force by utilising robotics.

Several Japanese technology manufacturers are targeting robotics for growth. Panasonic Corp and robotics research subsidiary ActiveLink Co Ltd this week showcased robotic suits and vests to assist in arduous manual tasks such as carrying heavy loads or picking fruit from trees. Personal or household robots, such as the Asimo robot that Honda Motor Co has been developing for more than a decade, are seen as potential elderly care providers.

Japan's overall robotics market was worth about 860 billion yen ($8.38 billion) in 2012 and is forecast to more than triple in value to 2.85 trillion yen by 2020, according to a trade ministry report last year.

A draft government growth strategy obtained by Reuters calls for a "robotic revolution" that would increase the use of robots in agriculture 20-fold and double manufacturing use.

($1 = 102.6400 Japanese Yen)

(Additional reporting by Faith Hung in Taipei; Editing by Edmund Klamann and Miral Fahmy)

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