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Replacing humans with robots in the service sector has its limits

"Pepper" the humanoid robot is seen in a Hamazushi sushi branch in Urawa Ward, Saitama. (Photo courtesy of Zensho Holdings Co.)

As Japan sinks further into a service industry labor shortage, places such as restaurants and retail outlets are increasingly turning to humanoid robots and self-checkout machines to help plug the gap.

From an economic perspective, the move toward using technology in the service industry seems to makes sense. A shortage of workers causes labor costs to go up, and therefore makes technology seem more preferable in terms of cost. However, the human touch is still valued by many companies in the service sector. As more and more robots and self-checkout machines come in to perform the tasks that humans used to do, one wonders how far this trend could and should go.

"Welcome! How many seats would you like? Would you prefer a table or the counter?" These are the messages that are bleated out upon arrival at the "Hamazushi" sushi restaurant in Urawa Ward, Saitama, by "Pepper" -- a humanoid robot manufactured by SoftBank Group Corp.

Once the greetings have been completed, the Hamazushi customers then enter a few minor details about group size and table preference into a touch screen on the robot's chest, before being escorted to their table directly by Pepper.

The decision to test out Pepper in Hamazushi stores was made by the restaurant chain's holding company, Zensho Holdings Co., which has been using the robot on a trial basis in three of its branches in the Tokyo area since October 2016.

Commenting on their decision to try out the robot, Zensho Holdings explained that, "By using a robot like Pepper to handle customers when they arrive, it means that our human staff can concentrate on cleaning up tables, which helps to reduce customer wait times." Consequently, the company is looking to use Pepper in more of its branches in the future.

A "Reji Robo" is seen in Moriguchi, Osaka Prefecture. (Mainichi)

Similarly, in December 2016 convenience store operator Lawson, Inc. and Panasonic Corp. began field testing a robot cash register called "Reji Robo" in a number of stores in Osaka.

By placing goods tagged with IC chips into a special basket, the items are then transferred into plastic grocery bags by "Reji Robo." The robot then calculates the total price using the IC tags, and once the full amount has been paid, the bagged goods will emerge for the customer to take away.

Other examples of companies trying out this kind of technology include the installation of self-checkout machines in approximately 20 "GU" casual clothing stores across the country, as well as similar trial machines in family restaurants and in McDonald's stores in Japan.

However, the shift toward using more technology and less humans in the service sector is perhaps not that straightforward. For example, a senior manager at a major distribution group told the Mainichi Shimbun, "The cost of attaching IC tags to all items in a store would be extremely high. Until labor costs exceed such costs, I think it will be difficult for robots and machines to suddenly replace all humans in the service sector."

In addition, a convenience store chain Seven-Eleven Japan Co. representative emphasizes, "Human service is a crucial element in this industry as it creates a connection with the customer." With this kind of corporate philosophy in mind, the company has no intention of introducing automated cash registers at this time.

It is worth noting that many companies in Japan still value human-to-human service. Therefore, it seems quite unlikely that robots and machines will completely replace humans in the service sector in the near future.

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