Japan's robots move into new jobs

By Kashiko Kawanaka, Yu Komagata

Toshiba's robot Chihira Junko attends to a customer at an information center in Tokyo. Photo / Japan News
Toshiba's robot Chihira Junko attends to a customer at an information center in Tokyo. Photo / Japan News

Humanoid robots, which move almost as naturally as humans, are fulfilling an increasingly broad range of roles in Japan.

Behind their popularity are improvements in sound and image recognition technologies, and the ability to manufacture robots with highly developed powers of expression. These robots are currently used just to attract public attention, and further technical innovation and a reduction in manufacturing costs are essential requirements to disseminate such robots more widely.

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Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings is one company eyeing the use of humanoid robots, and has begun studying how to introduce information clerk robots at its department stores. As an initial step, it plans to have robots handle reception services and inquiries at stores in central Tokyo in a few years.

Isetan Mitsukoshi's future vision calls for the robots to take orders, fetch goods and talk with customers. Human sales staff will concentrate entirely on such things as providing detailed explanations of goods, leading to better customer service.

Toshiba installed a female robot called Chihira Junko at a commercial complex in Minato Ward, Tokyo, last year. When users operate an input screen, the robot provides information on tourist facilities and other subjects in Japanese, English or Chinese.

Beginning with "androids," who made their appearance in a French science-fiction novel in the latter half of the 19th century, humanoid robots have been depicted in novels, films and comics. Honda Motor Co.'s Asimo, a robot capable of walking on two legs, made its debut at the end of the 20th century.

Robots capable of learning for themselves via artificial intelligence have increased, with SoftBank Group Corp.'s Pepper attracting attention lately.

Japan is still focusing on robot manufacturing itself. US and other foreign firms have a greater appetite for putting them to use.

At a hotel in Huis Ten Bosch, a resort facility in Nagasaki Prefecture, robots have been in charge of checking in guests since last July. The novelty of this development has attracted customers, and reductions in staff costs are expected.

Nomura Research Institute (NRI) has indicated the possibility that about half of Japan's labor force could be replaced by robots or artificial intelligence within the next 10 to 20 years, particularly those in roles such as supermarket checkouts or cleaning.

According to the market research company Fuji Keizai Co., the scale of the humanoid robot market is expected to grow rapidly, from ¥1.7 billion in 2014 to ¥24 billion in 2020.

In order for robots to become more common, it is necessary to anticipate situations in which they could actually play a role. However, NRI's Tomota Terada said: "Japan is still focusing on robot manufacturing itself. US and other foreign firms have a greater appetite for putting them to use."

Robots capable of carrying out precise tasks or holding high-level conversations are expensive to manufacture, and mass production is currently difficult.

Makers should have a customer-oriented perspective to develop robots to match the users' needs.

- Washington Post

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