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Tokyo’s Talking Subway Robots

The ARISA humanoid robot receptionist is demonstrated during the International Robot Exhibition 2017 at the Tokyo Big Sight on Nov. 29, 2017.(TOMOHIRO OHSUMI/GETTY IMAGES)

 

AS THOUSANDS OF OLYMPIC organizers, Tokyo city administrators, and local and foreign volunteers scurry to prepare for the upcoming 2020 Summer Games, another, somewhat less anxious, worker named ARISA is getting ready, too.

Facing an influx of Olympic spectators, as well as an aging population and low birth rate that has resulted in a national labor shortage, Japan is turning to robotics to help handle the demand for workers.

ARISA, a project by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, is a 6-foot guide robot that will work in the subway stations to show passengers the way to restrooms and lockers, offer transit directions and recommend tourist attractions in the area. Developed by the Japanese tech company Aruze Gaming and Chicago-headquartered THK, she’s wide-eyed, sharply dressed and can speak in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean. She’s also accompanied by a touch-screen monitor.

After completing a test run at the Ueno-Okachimachi and Tochomae subway stops at the end of December, the city is preparing for a second trial at five stations in February. Based on the results, the city will continue to study how ARISA and robots like it could be used in the future to enhance urban operations at various locations across the metro area, according to Takayuki Saito at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Bureau of General Affairs.

One Tokyo resident, 25-year-old Kyosuke Tanaka, came across ARISA on his commute to work, and says he was impressed. “The ARISA robot is a next generation robot that responds more smoothly and quickly than I imagined. The user interface is especially great.”

Tanaka, director of the youth sports organization Japan Sports Hub, believes ARISA will fill a key role during the Summer Games. Since most Olympic volunteers are not familiar enough with the city layout and subway system to effectively help lost visitors, Tanaka points out, ARISA’s artificial intelligence will fill in the gaps to offer seamless support.

It’s what the city government is counting on, too.

The city expects ARISA, with her humanoid features and direct dialogue capability, to help prevent mishaps and streamline the overall urban infrastructure.

“In the future, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, through public-private partnerships, will promote the use of this type of cutting-edge ICT (information communications technology),” Saito, information manager at the bureau’s communication planning department, said in an email. He’s hopeful that the technology powering ARISA will lead to further improvements of the quality of Tokyo’s services.

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Japan is the world’s third largest economy, but that position is in jeopardy, given the country’s severe worker shortage. According to a joint survey by Chuo University and Persol Research and Consulting, Japan will face a deficit of 6.44 million laborers by 2030. To fill in the gaps, Japan is increasingly turning to foreign workers and exploring tech-driven solutions.

“In Tokyo, the full-fledged declining birthrate and aging society, as well as the intensification of international competition, require continued response,” writes Saito. “We must appropriately respond to challenges like increased threats to safety and security, natural disasters, and terrorism.”

But for tourists, perhaps more interested in documenting their memories than delving into the intricacies of Japan’s labor shortage, ARISA might prove more of a novelty than an indispensable member of the workforce.

Luckily for them, ARISA is happy to pose for selfies, too.

Tanaka passed on the chance to take a commemorative photo with the humanoid. But if he changes his mind, he’ll get another chance in February.

 

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