Japan’s decreasing population has famously led to tricky problems for the country, not least of which is the growing shortage of workers for basic labour. Not having enough staff to work all of the jobs that are available is part of the reason why vending machines turn up in the most unexpected places, and also why automation is starting to spread into convenience stores.
Takanawa Gateway, one of Tokyo’s newest train stations, have even has a mini store “Touch to Go” where cameras, barcode scans and a self-checkout system mean there’s no need for shop attendants at all!
Since Japan has long been a country in love with technology and in need of extra workers, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that ‘augmented workforce’ company Telexistence has recently made big steps towards introducing AI capable robots into shops to solve the labour problem. Even so, the announcement of the new Model-T from the Tokyo based company still feels like science fiction.
Sleek, black and with a head shaped like a very expensive boomerang, the Model-T is equipped with specialized hands able to grip and move around goods for sale in convenience stores.
The impressive advanced dexterity and lighting fast connection between visual sense and physical touch means that the robot seems almost overqualified for its purpose of shelf stacking, but that’s the task Model-T will be undertaking as it’s rolled out to work in Family Mart stores. It’s a gradual process, but the convenience store aims to have Model-Ts in about 20 locations by 2022.
Although it already seems fully capable and very professional looking the Model-T will still be learning as it works, developing its skills with the aim of eventually becoming independent. For the time being, there will still be a human in the driving seat, operating the robot using VR technology. Of course, that means there’s no need for the person controlling the shelf-stacking robot to leave home, creating a brand new kind of teleworking.
Telexistence is taking on a futuristic challenge, but this is certainly a step towards a platform where people can join the workforce regardless of their location. The robot itself has been named after the Model-T Ford, an automobile which practically revolutionised the transportation industry thanks to its low cost and simplicity. It looks like Telexistence are hoping to achieve the same level of success, and they might just be able to.
Could you work alongside a robot? Will they rise up against us? Will the Model-T be able to welcome customers in the shop with a traditional shout of ‘irasshaimase!’?
These are all important questions, since the robot’s success could depend on its popularity. Looking through the comments on demonstration videos on YouTube and searching through twitter, it seems like people are split between excitement and being creeped out by the advance of robots into their everyday life.
A third group of reviewers can’t help but compare the robot to classic robots in media, with twitter threads suddenly becoming an excellent source of mecha anime and manga recommendations!