Japanese robot to check in at convenience store to test retail automation

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(This July 15 article corrects paragraph 5 to specify that the investor is Airbus Ventures, not Airbus SE)

TOKYO (Reuters) – In August, a vaguely kangaroo-like robot will start stacking sandwiches, drinks and ready-made meals on the shelves of a Japanese convenience store in a test that its maker, Telexistence, hopes will help spark a wave retail automation.

As a result of the trial, the store operator FamilyMart announced plans to use robots in 20 stores around Tokyo by 2022. At first, people will operate them remotely – until the artificial intelligence (AI) machines can learn to mimic human movements. Rival convenience store chain Lawson will roll out its first robot in September, according to Telexistence.

“It advances the scope and scale of human existence,” said Jin Tomioka, general manager of the robot maker, explaining how its technology enables people to feel and experience places other than where they are. are found.

The idea, dubbed telexistence, was first proposed by the start-up’s co-founder, University of Tokyo professor Susumu Tachi, four decades ago.

Their company received funding from technology investment firm SoftBank Group and mobile operator KDDI in Japan, along with foreign investors including Airbus Ventures, the venture capital arm of European aircraft manufacturer Airbus SE.

He dubbed his robot the Model T, a nod to the Ford car that started the mass automobile era a century ago.

Its original design is meant to help buyers feel comfortable, as people may feel uncomfortable with robots that look too human.

LEAKING FACTORIES

Robots are still rare in public. While they can outperform humans in manufacturing plants built around them, they struggle with simple tasks in more unpredictable urban environments.

Solving this performance problem could help companies in industrialized countries, especially those in rapidly aging Japan, cope with fewer workers. Businesses affected by the coronavirus outbreak may also need to operate with fewer people.

Since the outbreak began, hotels, restaurants and even oil and gas companies have contacted Telexistence, Tomioka said.

“It’s hard to say now what impact robots could have in restaurants – it could mean fewer people, but it could also create new jobs,” said Niki Harada, head of the Japanese Restaurant Workers Union.

Using human operators with virtual reality glasses and motion sensor controls to train their machines reduces the cost of retail robotics compared to complex programming which can cost 10 times more than hardware and take months to complete, says Telexistence.

While FamilyMart will always need humans to control its robots, operators can be anywhere and include people who wouldn’t normally work in stores, said Tomohiro Kano, general manager in charge of franchise development.

“There are around 1.6 million people in Japan who, for various reasons, are not active in the labor market,” he said.

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

It may be another 20 years before robots can work in people’s homes, he said.

“For robots to be truly usable in the home, we really need to be able to communicate. The basic thing that is missing is how humans behave.

Reporting by Tim Kelly; Additional reporting by Kevin Buckland. Editing by Gerry Doyle


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