The Smithsonian Is Using a Swahili-Speaking Robot to Break Down Language Barriers

Pepper the Robot’s vocabulary lessons help visitors understand the great influence of southeast African art on global culture

Pepper Robot
Pepper talks to a group of museum visitors on the lower level of the National Museum of African Art. Michelle Edwards / National Museum of African Art

How do you get a robot to speak Swahili? That’s the challenge that faced Michelle Edwards, the docent coordinator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

Pepper the Robot was developed by Softbank Robotics and debuted this week at the museum, as well as at five other Smithsonian museums and research centers. Pepper will be helping visitors better understand how art from southeast Africa had a major influence on global culture. A new exhibit, "World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean", opens in early May, and Pepper will be there as a high-tech guide.

Edwards, who spearheaded the Pepper program at the museum and wrote the robot’s script, says that the new exhibit presents a particularly good opportunity for Pepper’s language lessons, given the focus on Swahili itself in the artwork.

“A lot of the artwork that people will see has sayings in Swahili – you see all these nice little quotes dispersed through the art that communicate different ideals,” she says. “Having Pepper there to really focus visitors on the words they will hear gets people thinking and making that connection with language and the arts.”

Training Pepper was no easy task. Edwards spent weeks consulting with Swahili-proficient colleagues and putting Pepper through many trials with phonetic spelling. “What takes a long time is tweaking the natural flow of how Pepper speaks – even though I spelled the words correctly in Swahili, she didn’t say them right [at first],” Edwards says.

“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,” Edwards adds. She explains that the southeastern part of Africa, where the artwork in “World on the Horizon” was created, is home to a vibrant, Swahili-speaking trading economy that exchanges often-written cultural ideas through the transaction of artistic goods. “Words travel through this exchange – it could be anything from a book opening containing scripture to amulets with traditional sayings. And Swahili was the traders’ language.”

But now, before the exhibit opens, Pepper draws all the attention in the museum’s usually quiet lobby. A group of middle-school students from the Maryland suburbs rush over to Pepper to participate in an interactive session. “It’s clearly a main attraction,” says their teacher, Caroline Bosc.

She translates the Swahili phrase mambo poa rafiki, meaning “all is good,” which appears on one of the art pieces in the exhibition, and her listeners excitedly repeat it. “It seems very well done. The way the fingers move and everything – it’s like a human,” says Emilia Taulbee, a museum visitor, as she pushes her daughter in a stroller.

Though Pepper is currently housed on the ground floor next to the museum’s main entrance, she will move downstairs when "World on the Horizon" opens. Edwards hopes that in time, the museum will expand its use of Pepper throughout all of its exhibits, but she feels that this new, traveling exhibit organized by the Krannert Museum of Art in Illinois, is an important place to initiate this learning enhancement tool. It boasts a diverse collection of over 130 pieces – including paintings, photographs, clothing, manuscripts, and ceremonial objects.

“I don’t think people are aware of the Afro-Indian Ocean influence. A lot of the time in the U.S., we tend to focus on Africa-to-America movement, and we often forget that there are multiple exchanges between Africa and the Indian Ocean,” says Edwards. “I hope that [Pepper] will get people to think about the content – and the continent – a little bit differently.”

Pepper Robot Commons
In the Smithsonian Castle, Pepper entices visitors into the Commons. Sarah Sulick / Smithsonian

The launch of the Pepper program is the product of the Smithsonian’s partnership with SoftBank, an international technology conglomerate that donated a total of approximately 30 robots to be distributed throughout the Institution. Overall, the robots are intended to work alongside docents and curators in their efforts to help visitors get the best educational experience out of their museum visit.

According to Rachel Goslins, the director of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building who leads the Pepper program, the Institution first learned about the robots at a meeting last April at which technology companies demoed all sorts of products that might help the museum. “Some of the other technologies, like virtual and augmented reality, are isolating; they’re about having an individual experience,” says Goslins. “The thing that I liked about Pepper and these kinds of robots is that they’re physical, incredibly interactive, and they encourage group interactions and being present.”

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Goslins explains that the various Smithsonian organizations have devised many different uses for Pepper to combat challenges that they face and to deepen their connection with the community. The National Museum of African American History and Culture, for example, has had an ongoing issue with getting sufficient visitation in their second-floor educational gallery, but through testing they found that having Pepper give introductions to the gallery brings twice the foot traffic.

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, docents use Pepper to break the ice with visitors, finding that the visitors are more likely to engage with them and ask them questions when they use the robot as a presentation aid. And the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center has partnered with a local STEM high school to allow students to practice computer programming on Pepper.

Given the initial positive feedback, and Softbank’s subsequent offer to donate up to 100 more robots, the Institution plans to expand the program to other Smithsonian groups in June.

“Museums are increasingly important in this technological age, but I also think they struggle to compete with the easy lure of just pulling up everything on your phone,” says Goslins. “Whether it’s Pepper, or augmented reality, or whatever it is that museums are doing, we need to figure out a way to integrate the technologies, increased stimulation and forward thinking that we see in the world around us into our buildings.”

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