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Artificial Intelligence and Robotics

Japan’s robot chefs aim to show how far automation can go

Machines replacing humans in country’s hospitality sector to meet staff shortfalls by Kana Inagaki

robots

Machines across the world already make sushi, noodles and pizzas. Now a Japanese amusement park has taken a leap of faith by creating a restaurant with more robots than human workers.

A robot with arms prepares okonomiyaki — savoury pancakes — while another makes cocktails or doughnuts in front of customers at a Dutch-themed resort in Sasebo in south-west Japan.

In addition to cooking, an android arrives at diners’ tables with a reminder 10 minutes before their hour-long buffet is up. This is an act that could be irritating if performed by a human waiter, but can prove entertaining when performed by a robot.

The experimental robotic chefs at the Huis Ten Bosch theme park are not just a gimmick to draw tourists. They are part of a project — funded with $265,000 in Japanese government money — designed to examine which kitchen and food processes should be automated and which left to humans.

Japan is home to many world leaders in factory automation including Fanuc and Yaskawa Electric and the country’s prime minister Shinzo Abe is betting on robotic innovation to revive the country’s struggling services industry by 2020, in time for the tourist boost that the Summer Olympics is expected to provide.

Government estimates show that while the services sector accounts for about 70 per cent of Japan’s economic output, labour productivity is 40 per cent lower than that of the US. Low productivity has made it difficult for restaurants to raise the wages of workers, putting strains on a sector already struggling to cope with Japan’s chronic labour shortage.

To address the tight labour market, convenience store operators such as Lawson have turned to temporary workers from outside Japan while restaurants and fast-food chains such as McDonald’s are cutting back on the number of 24-hour outlets. But economists say these are only temporary measures and that the country will need to accept more immigrants or make further technological advances in robots.

An aggressive target set by Mr Abe envisages Japan growing the size of its domestic market for robots in the non-manufacturing sector to ¥1.2tn ($10.6bn) in 2020 from ¥60bn now.

At Huis Ten Bosch, there are 30 robots — most of them supplied by Japanese manufacturers including Yaskawa and Toyo Riki — supported by seven employees to operate the restaurant which has more than 100 seats. The company says sales have risen as a result of robots attracting more customers while labour efficiency has been boosted by using machines to improve turnaround times at tables.

Still, Ikki Nakahira, the Huis Ten Bosch manager who came up with the robot chef concept, says the automation technology is not advanced enough to operate the restaurant with robots alone, as was initially envisioned.

Employees must often help out when robots fail to flip the pancakes correctly, and the ingredients to be used in the pancakes, such as cabbage, need to be prepared by humans. For now, the robots’ clumsy movements are part of the fun, but the company says more sophistication is required before the jobs can be fully performed by machines. “We are not necessarily using cutting-edge robotics technology. But the key is to be able to use the robots on a stable basis even if the technology is slightly old,” says Mr Nakahira.

“Robotics technology is advancing rapidly, so the challenge and the fun part is to constantly make changes in partnership with robot manufacturers.”

Huis Ten Bosch plans to set up a separate unit later this year to work with manufacturers to make robots similar to those that have been used at the park’s restaurants and hotels, which it can sell to similar attractions.

Despite the push by Mr Abe, Japanese restaurants have been slow to adopt automation, even for simple tasks such as collecting or washing dishes, while interest in robots in the kitchens has been rising in places such as Silicon Valley and China.

In the US, San Francisco-based start-up Momentum Machines has developed a robot that can autonomously produce 400 burgers in an hour, carrying out the work of three humans. At another restaurant in the Bay Area called Eatsa, customers can buy and collect quinoa-based vegetarian takeaway meals using tablet ordering devices and vending machines. The process requires no interaction with humans although people behind the scenes help prepare the food.

Even in Japan — a country where robots are often portrayed as friendly companions in films and animations — experts say there could be a psychological barrier to bringing robots into restaurants and hotels, where personal interaction and hospitality are valued.

According to a survey carried out last March by Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting, respondents were almost evenly divided over whether they would use hotels where the receptionist was a robot. In contrast, 40 per cent of respondents said they did not mind robots carrying out cleaning and other tasks not visible to the customer, compared with 17 per cent who were against the use of machines for such roles.

While automation may create fears of job losses, Rebecca Chesney, researcher at the Institute for the Future, a California-based think-tank, says more robotics will probably be introduced in the sector if people can appreciate their benefits. “We have a choice in how we implement some of these technologies in our food systems,” she says.

“We tend to think about machines replacing humans but we are also going to see new ways technologies are going to enhance our lives.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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