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Japanese consumers quick to welcome robot assistants

, July 23, 2015, 0 Comments

Japanese-robot-MarketExpress-inIn September, 11 new members of staff are scheduled to start work at Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport. The latest additions to the workforce will be tasked with menial jobs, such as cleaning the concourse and transporting luggage, but they are unlikely to complain about their responsibilities as they are robots.

The operator of the airport has signed an agreement with Cyberdyne Inc. to put the technology company’s latest creations to the test in a real-life work environment. And, should the experiment be deemed a success, then both parties say they are ready to deploy more non-human members of staff in the future.

Putting androids to work at Haneda might be seen as something of a gimmick or a publicity stunt, but there is a more serious reason behind the introduction of robots at the airport – as well as in an increasing number of service sector positions across Japan.

“Companies are finding a lot of low-skilled jobs quite difficult to fill because of Japan’s shrinking labor force,” Professor Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University, told DW.

Population problems

“These robots can be programmed to meet that shortfall in a nation that is facing an aging crisis and for which the government has not prepared well,” he said. “There is already a shortage of workers in the care sector and it has the highest turnover rate of staff in Japan because of poor pay and conditions.”

And while robots are popping up in airports, restaurants, banks, hotels and on farms and construction sites, they are likely to be deployed most readily in the care sector.

In 2014, people over 65 years old accounted for slightly over 25 percent of the population, meaning that there were more than 32.68 million Japanese over the age of 65. Even more worryingly, the number of retirees was for the first time more than double the 16.31 million Japanese under the age of 15, underlining the speed at which society here is aging.

Given the nation’s declining birth rate, the elderly are expected to account for more than 30 percent of the entire population by 2025. On a global scale, The World Health Organization predicts that by 2050, 22 percent of the planet’s population will be over the age of 60.

Developers have quickly recognized the opportunities that exist in this sector.

Happy teddy bear

RIBA, for example, resembles a huge, happy teddy bear and is designed to lift hospital patients in and out of their wheelchair or bed. Still at the development stage, RIBA – short for Robot for Interactive Body Assistance – is able to lift a weight of 61 kg on is padded arms and is also able to recognize faces and voices, as well as responding to up to 30 spoken commands.

The battery-powered robot can operate for up to an hour on a single charge and is more agile and stronger than its predecessor, the Ri-man.

Another android that is likely to be found in hospitals and care homes in the not-too-distant future will be Hospi-Rimo, an abbreviation of Remote Intelligence and Mobility. The android is designed to act as an intermediary to improve communication between patients who are bedridden or have limited mobility and their carers, such as a doctor, in another room or even in another city.

The device – complete with smiley face on its screen – is equipped with autonomous mobility technology and high-definition visual communications facilities. It is also able to autonomously move to a specified location, recognizing the surrounding environment and avoid obstacles.

One of the latest additions to the care robot sector is the Human Support Robot, developed by Toyota. Highly maneuverable, compact and equipped with a lightweight cylindrical body and folding arms, the HSR can pick objects up from the floor, retrieve objects from shelves and a variety of other tasks.

“In caring for your loved ones, artificial intelligence is not yet a substitute for human attentiveness,” Toyota said in a statement, “In addition to local, on-site operation, the HSR can be operated remotely by family and friends, with the operator’s face and voice being relayed in real-time, allowing for real, human interaction while also being able to help with daily tasks.”

Developing new skills

But there seems to be little that robots are not able to turn their hands to in Japan.

Robot developer Tmsuk Co. has teamed up with security firm Alacom Co. to develop an android that will roam around industrial premises and use heat sensors to detect intruders. Moving on four wheels at a speed of 10 kmh, the robot is guided by a controller who sees real-time images of its location through video link to a security centre or even a mobile phone.

And when it comes face-to-face with the intruder, it can fire a net designed to entangle someone until human reinforcements arrive.

Meanwhile, at the Hen-na Hotel, which literally means “strange hotel,” uniformed robots are on the reception desk and will deliver luggage to the guest’s room. The hotel opened in July at the Huis Ten Bosch theme park, outside Nagasaki, and is billed as the world’s first hotel staffed by humanoid androids.

“It’s difficult to put a definite start point on the start of the robot era as there has been a kind of ‘technology creep,’ but they are certainly percolating into our everday lives,” said Tim Hornyak, author of “Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots.”

Hornyak says that Japan has long been recognized as a world-leader in industrial robots, but was caught out when US-based iRobot released Roomba, the first android vacuum cleaner. Companies here should also have been ready to step in with androids when the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in March 2011 made the environment too hazardous for humans to operate in.

Pepper steps out

But he is encouraged at the arrival of Pepper, am intelligent, humanoid robot developed by SoftBank.

“Pepper is a remarkably sophisticated robot that is being sold here at a very reasonable Y190,000 (1,412 euros), plus monthly fees,” said Hornyak, who is also the Tokyo correspondent for IDG News.

“SoftBank and the companies it is working with is willing to lose money on Pepper for the first four years, but by that time there will be a wealth of apps that will make the device much more appealing,” he said.

The ability to pack a dishwasher, sort out a pile of laundry or tidy up around the home could make Pepper the world’s first genuine personal service robot, Hornyak believes.