Robot to clock in at a convenience store in test of retail automation

Robot to clock in at a convenience store in test of retail automation
In August, a robot vaguely resembling a kangaroo will commence stacking sandwiches, drinks and ready meals on shelves at a Japanese convenience store in a test its maker, Telexistence, hopes can help trigger a wave of retail automation.

Following that trial, store operator FamilyMart says it plans to use robot personnel at 20 stores around Tokyo by 2022. Initially, persons will operate them remotely - until the machines' artificial intelligence (AI) can learn to mimic human movements. Rival convenience store chain Lawson is deploying its first robot in September, according to Telexistence.

"It increases the scope and scale of human existence," the robot maker's leader, Jin Tomioka, said as he explained how its technology lets persons sense and experience places apart from where they are.

The theory, dubbed telexistence, was initially proposed by the beginning up's co-founder, University of Tokyo professor Susumu Tachi, four decades ago.

Their company has received funding from technology investment company Softbank Group and mobile phone service operator KDDI in Japan, with overseas investors including European passenger aircraft maker Airbus SE. It dubbed its robot the Model T, a nod to the Ford Motor car that began the era of mass motoring a century ago.

Its quirky design is intended to help shoppers feel at ease because people can feel uncomfortable around robots that look too human.

Robots are still a rare sight in public. Although they can outperform humans in manufacturing plants built around them, they have a problem with simple tasks in more unpredictable urban settings.

Solving that performance problem could help businesses in industrialised nations, particularly those in rapidly ageing Japan, cope with fewer workers. Firms hit by the coronavirus outbreak could also have to operate with fewer people.

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

"It's difficult to tell now what impact robots may have in restaurants - it could mean fewer people, nonetheless it may possibly also create new jobs," said Niki Harada, the official at Japan's Restaurant Workers Union.

Using human operators with virtual reality goggles and motion-sensor controls to teach its machines slashes the cost of retail robotics weighed against complex programming that may cost 10 times more than as the hardware and take months to complete, Telexistence says.

Although FamilyMart will still need humans to regulate its robots, operators could be anywhere and include persons who not normally work to get, said Tomohiro Kano, a general manager responsible for franchise development.

"There are about 1.6 million persons in Japan, who for various reasons aren't active in the workforce," he said.

Future telexistence robots may 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 america, who joined Telexistence in February as an adviser.

It could take another 20 years before robots could work in people's homes, however, he said.

"To ensure that robots to be really usable at home we really must be able to communicate. The fundamental thing that's lacking is focusing on how humans behave."
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