At this Japanese robot cafe, staff can serve customers while working from home

At a cafe in Tokyo, Michio Imai greets a customer – but not in person. He is 800 kilometres away in Japan’s Hiroshima city, operating a robot waiter as part of an experiment in inclusive employment. Imai is one of some 50 employees with physical and mental impairments who work as Dawn Cafe’s “pilots”, operating robot staff from home. The cafe’s robots are intended to be more than a gimmick, offering job opportunities to people who find it hard to work outside the home. It opened in central Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district in June and employs staff across Japan and overseas, as well as some who work on site. It was originally supposed to open last year to coincide with the Paralympics, but the opening was postponed by the pandemic – just like the Games, which begin on Tuesday. How a Chinese firm is profiting by making robots for pets 20 Aug 2020 Around 20 miniature robots with almond-shaped eyes sit on tables and in other parts of the cafe, which has no stairs and smooth wooden floors large enough for wheelchairs. Advertisement The machines named OriHime feature cameras, a microphone and a speaker to allow operators to communicate with customers remotely. EVERY SATURDAY SCMP Global Impact Newsletter By submitting, you consent to receiving marketing emails from SCMP. If you don't want these, tick here By registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy “May I take your order?” one asks, next to a tablet showing a menu of burgers, curry and salad. Miniature humanoid robots named OriHime at the Dawn Cafe in Tokyo. Photo: AFP Miniature humanoid robots named OriHime at the Dawn Cafe in Tokyo. Photo: AFP As customers chat with the pilots operating the mini robots, three larger, humanoid versions move around to serve drinks or welcome customers at the entrance. And there’s even a barista robot in a brown apron at the bar that can make coffee with a French press. Read more Why are lonely Asians turning to robots for friendship? Why are lonely Asians turning to robots for friendship? Read more Pets in China now have their own robot friends, which can entertain and even dispense treats How Shenzhen-based Enabot is profiting by making robots for pets Read more The hotel of the future: robot butlers, smartphone-controlled beds and guest rooms on wheels on the agenda for Knowledge of Design Week Robot butlers, smart beds: the hotel of the future is taking shape today Read more Pandemic boosts demand for cleaning robots in Hong Kong’s shopping malls, offices and hotels RoboMop? Pandemic boosts demand for cleaning robots in Hong Kong malls Read more China’s army of robotic rollers paving a road to future infrastructure China’s army of robotic rollers paving a road to future infrastructure But the robots are largely a medium through which workers can communicate with customers. This is a place where people can participate in society Kentaro Yoshifuji, entrepreneur “I talk to our customers about many subjects, including the weather, my hometown and my health condition,” said Imai, who has a somatic symptom disorder that makes leaving home difficult. Advertisement “As long as I’m alive, I want to give something back to the community by working. I feel happy if I can be a part of society.” Other operators have a range of different abilities, including some Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) patients who use eye movements on a special digital panel to send signals to the robots. Kentaro Yoshifuji is the co-founder of Ory Laboratory, which makes the robots. Photo: AFP Kentaro Yoshifuji is the co-founder of Ory Laboratory, which makes the robots. Photo: AFP The project is the brainchild of Kentaro Yoshifuji, an entrepreneur who co-founded the company Ory Laboratory that makes the robots. Advertisement After suffering a bout of bad health as a child that left him unable to go school, he began thinking about ways to bring people into the workforce even if they can’t leave home. “I’m thinking about how people can have job options when they want to work,” said the 33-year-old. “This is a place where people can participate in society.” Advertisement He established the cafe with support from major companies and crowdfunding, and says the experiment is about more than robots. “Customers here are not exactly coming to this location just to meet OriHime,” he said at the cafe. “There are people operating OriHime behind the scenes, and customers will come back to see them again.” A robot delivers drinks to customers at the Dawn Cafe in Tokyo. Photo: AFP A robot delivers drinks to customers at the Dawn Cafe in Tokyo. Photo: AFP The cafe’s launch comes with the Paralympics due to open on August 24 and disability advocates debating Japan’s progress on inclusion and accessibility. Advertisement Since Tokyo won the bid to host the Games in 2013 it has touted efforts to make public facilities more accessible. But support for inclusion remains limited, said Seiji Watanabe, head of a non-profit organisation in central Japan’s Aichi that supports employment for people with disabilities. In March, the government revised regulations to edge up the minimum ratio of disabled workers at a company from 2.2 per cent to 2.3 per cent. “The level is too low,” Watanabe said. “And Japanese companies don’t have a culture of hiring diverse human resources on their own initiative.” Pandemic boosts demand for cleaning robots in Hong Kong malls 14 Apr 2021 At Dawn, Mamoru Fukaya said he and his 17-year-old son were enjoying the cafe on a lunchtime visit. “(The pilot) was very friendly,” the 59-year-old said. “Since he said he can’t work outside his home, it’s great that there’s this kind of chance.” Yoshifuji is focused on the cafe project now, but thinks robots could one day even make the Paralympics more inclusive. “There’s a possibility that a kind of new Paralympics for those who are bedridden can be created,” he said. “We could even create new sports. That might be interesting.” This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Robot cafe offers jobs for the disableddisability inclusion