Staff members of Telexistence check the company's shelf-stacking avatar robot, designed to resemble a kangaroo and developed to work in a convenience store. Photo: REUTERS/Issei Kato

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

By Tim Kelly

In August, a robot vaguely 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 of retail automation.

Following that trial, store operator FamilyMart says it plans to use robot workers at 20 stores around Tokyo by 2022. At first, people 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 advances the scope and scale of human existence," the robot maker's chief executive, Jin Tomioka, said as he explained how its technology lets people sense and experience places other than where they are.

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 has received funding from technology investment company Softbank Group and cell phone service operator KDDI in Japan, with overseas investors including European passenger aircraft maker Airbus Ventures. 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 meant 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 struggle 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 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.

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

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

Although FamilyMart will still need humans to control its robots, operators can 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 adviser.

It might take another 20 years before robots can work in people's homes, however, 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."

© Thomson Reuters 2020.

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Cant wait, although konbini are very narrow would be there enough space??

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I do not know how effective the robot is but it looks pretty cool to me!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Anubis lives ? (well in Robotic form)

2 ( +2 / -0 )

It looks like something out of my nightmares.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Is the robot wearing a mask? It look like...

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Hope it washes its hands and disinfects surfaces.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Does it looks the other way while greeting you?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Even the 'bot is wearing a mask? No thank you!

Just give me a screen and buttons to push.

Besides, that thing is uber-creepy, and it is taking away someone's job.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

One of the biggest thing at the moment that is driving me mad is the autonomous society that we live in, I can understand robots in car factories or where highly accurate machine parts for X,Y or Z are made, but even down to closing banks and stuff its all automated, I am sorry but I do like to communicate, face to face with some one who I am buying a product or service from, Its becoming a soulless society ( here in the UK) what is wrong with having some one in a shop filling shelfs? why a god dam robot? my local bank spent thousands of pounds on installing a paying in machine, but they still employed the lady who was sitting behind the counter ( who they were trying to replace by the paying in machine) to show customer how to use it! so did they save money? no it cost the bank more. please stop this decline of human interaction by replacing them with robots!!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It looks more like some kind of space cat than a kangaroo.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Amazing. Rather than pay a living wage, these places would willingly pay out for a robot.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

. . . state of the art.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It looks sinister. I would assume they could have made it look a bit more friendlier?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"... designed to resemble a kangaroo"

Why is it designed to resemble a kangaroo? Why is it not designed for efficiency, or for cost reduction, or for ease of repair?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Sorry, call me old school but I still prefer human to human interaction.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

A back in my day note: Back in my day if you routinely spoke to a piece of machinery, you were considered crazy and in need of mental care.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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