I met Masoyoshi Son twenty years ago when he bought a publishing company I was involved with.

He told us that he had a 300 year plan to build a group of businesses in media and technology to help make humans happier – or more cheerful at least.

He now sits a-top the huge Japanese telecom, Internet, media and e-com conglomerate SoftBank Group.

The mission remains the same.

SoftBank grew like a triffid on a compost heap, and became a stock market darling.

But the acquisition of US telecom company Sprint in 2013 has imploded leaving Masoyoshi some $4 billion poorer as a result, and investors don’t care about the shares anymore.

However, one SoftBank’s dizzy array of projects has caught the headlines and puts SoftBank in the vanguard of the nascent social robot industry.

Remember that nearly a decade ago Bill Gates forecast that a personal robot industry would emerge that would become bigger than the personal computer industry.

The clutch of technologies that spawned and power smart phones is at the heart of what’s enabling the gestation of a personal/social robot industry, and this year will see a host of offerings, e.g., from China’s Roskid, the MIT Media Labs’ Jibo and Amazon’s voice-driven ‘robot in a can’ Echo/Alexa.

I saw a demo of the table top Roskid, shaped like a frozen water drop, on CCTV, and I can see it being a beguiling non-Rogerian therapist, among other things, along the lines of Joe Weisenbaum’s famous ‘ELIZA’ computer program written in the mid-1960s. ELIZA virtually passed the Turing Test and was preferred by its ‘patients’ to a human therapist.

And with immaculate timing Mark Zuckerberg’s 2016 resolution is to write the code to animate a personal factotum robot for himself.

Meanwhile, lo and behold Pepper – developed by French robotics company Aldebaran now part of SoftBank.

Where, so far, it stands out is that it is designed to be fun as well as helpful.

Pepper is humanoid and mobile. It can tell your mood by your facial expression, tone of voice, body language even, and responds accordingly by dancing, putting on funny voices, telling jokes and giving you its full attention.

It has been a major hit as ‘front of house’ at stores, business reception areas, and at events in general.

Its first batch of 1,000 on offer to the public was vastly over-subscribed.

SoftBank has joined forces with Foxconn and Alibaba in a $350 million project to ‘globalise’ Pepper starting with America for which it is being adapted in terms of greetings and humour very different from Japan’s.

Whether SoftBank can turn this into a huge and profitable business is an open question as such big guns as Apple, Google, Amazon, Samsung and LG, among others, toy with the idea of entering the fray.

Then there’s Microsoft itself which built up a formidable robotics R&D capacity under Gates but seemed to withdraw from it in the dying days of the Ballmer regime. No hints so far from Nadella. But…?

Meanwhile, with Pepper, the evidence suggests Masoyoshi has been true to his own 300 year agenda.

But be clear about one thing, Pepper will not, definitely not, be a ‘friend with benefits.’