Will Japan ever stop trying to convince people that robots are more efficient that humans? The answer is probably no — even when results have proven otherwise.
Earlier this month, the government in the city of Ogaki, in Gifu Prefecture, introduced additional staff to its staff that will guide residents through leisurely activities, like filling out a tax return form or reading from a picture book. The new staff are, you guessed it, robots.
Mayor Bin Ogawa told reporters that deploying robots is a way to "make our municipal office a gathering place where we can have fun," which is a novel concept as far as city bureaucracy goes. Ogaki's shiny—and stiff—staff members are set to start in 2020.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, a hotel is in the process of eliminating more than half of its robotic staff for incompetence. News of Henn na Hotel—literally translated ‘’strange hotel"—removing its main attraction just one day after the Ogaki city’s successful robot demonstration. Cautionary tale, anyone?
Henn na Hotel opened its doors in 2015 to the enthusiasm of many locals and tourists. When guests arrive at the hotel, they're immediately greeted by a robot velociraptor, which stands next to a human receptionist who's still in charge of signing you in. The hotel also features a robotic concierge, robots tasked with sorting and transporting luggage, and an in-room voice assistant which caused at least one guest to lose sleep because it mistook the man's snoring for a call for help. While robots that had no direct contact with guests have proven to be useful, most of the other robots have not.
Gimmicky robots, like the chicken nugget robochef that caused long lines at one convenience store in Tokyo, make for great attractions. But Japan is struggling to developing the software and artificial intelligence needed to enable them to perform more useful tasks, says a report by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
The ratio of robots-to-human employees in Japanese factories are the highest in the world: 303 per 10,000 employees. Roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro told the Economist that automation in the service sector is inevitable. But a quick Google search will tell you that a future dominated with robots as human replacements is farther away than we've been led to believe. For example, taking care of the elderly is one task that many experts believe robots will be good for. But in reality, people aren't just that interested in a robotic nurse. The challenges in creating an effective robot to help ease the day-to-day life is why even robotics companies with big funding are dying. It makes you wonder—how much do we actually need robots? What are we going to do with those that move too much like creepy crawlies, especially? Or those who can, err, flip bottles with 100 percent success rate?
When the majority of people still prefer humans over robots to provide care and services, it may just be better to think of robots the way Ogaki's mayor thinks about those he's letting into city hall—it's all for fun! And at the very least we can take comfort that some job sectors are safe… for now.