Japanese 'kangaroo-bot' to clock on at convenience store

  • Thursday 16, July 2020 07:09 PM
Sharjah 24 - Reuters: In August, a robot resembling a kangaroo will begin stacking sandwiches, drinks and ready meals on shelves at a Japanese convenience store in a test its maker, Telexistence, hopes will help trigger a wave retail automation.
Following that initial trial, store operator FamilyMart says it plans to employ robot workers at twenty stores around Tokyo by 2022 that people will operate remotely until the machines' artificial intelligence (AI) can learn to mimic human movements. Rival convenience store chain Lawson is hiring its first robot in September, according to Telexistence.

"It advances the scope and scale of human existence," the robot maker's CEO Jin Tomioka, as he explained a technology that lets people sense and experience places other than where they are.

That telexistence idea was first proposed by the start up's co-founder, University of Tokyo professor Susumu Tachi, four decades ago. Their company has received funding from technology investment company Softbank Group cell phone service operator KDDI in Japan with overseas investors including European passenger aircraft maker Airbus SE.

It dubbed its robot the Model T in a nod to the Ford Motor car that began the era of mass motoring a century ago. It's Kangaroo design, which Tomioka picked because he is fond of marsupials, is meant to help shoppers feel at ease because people can feel uncomfortable robots that look too human. Robots are still a rare sight in public, because although they outperform humans in manufacturing plants built around them, they struggle with simple tasks in more unpredictable urban setting where people live.

"Only around 600,000 industrial robots are sold (annually) and the reason is that they are only used in factories," said Tomioka, far less than 90 million road vehicles sold last year.

Solving that performance problem could help businesses in industrialized nations, particularly those in rapidly greying Japan, cope with fewer workers, Firms hit by the coronavirus outbreak may also need to operate with fewer people. Since the outbreak started, hotels, restaurants and even gas and oil companies have contacted Telexistence, Tomioka said.

Using human operators with virtual reality goggles and motion-sensor controls to train its machines slashes the cost of retail robotics compared complex programming that can cost ten times as much as the hardware and take months to complete, claims Telexistence.

Although FamilyMart will still need humans to operate its robots, operators could be anywhere and include people who would not normally work in stores, said Tomohiro Kano, a general manager in charge of franchise development.

"There are about 1.6 million people in Japan, who for various reasons are not active in the workforce," he said.

Future telexistence robots could also be used in hospitals so doctors could perform operations from remote locations, predicted Professor Takeo Kanade, an AI and robotics scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, who joined Telexistence in February as an advisor.

It might take another 20 years before robots can work in people's homes, however, because visual and speech recognition technology is still not advanced enough, he said.

"In order for robots to be really usable at home we really have to be able to communicate. The fundamental thing that is lacking is knowing how humans behave."