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Japan city tests AI-powered photo analysis to help citizens properly dispose trash

A screenshot of a chatbot that can guide people on things such as the proper way to separate types of garbage, taken in Chiba's Chuo Ward on Feb. 3, 2023. Users can click the camera icon on the bottom right, take a photo of their garbage, and receive guidance. (Mainichi/Yoshitaka Yamamoto)

CHIBA -- The test phase of a system allowing residents to send in photos of their household garbage and receive artificial intelligence-powered instructions for its disposal was rolled out in this east Japan city earlier this month.

    Every day, the city receives frequent inquiries about how to correctly separate household garbage, along with complaints that it is hard to reach them by phone. To help residents divide and dispose their waste, in July 2021 the city introduced an AI-powered chatbot which is accessible around the clock. Whether it is not well known or for other reasons, usership has remained low, not reaching beyond 5,000 people per month. By adding an image analysis feature, the city hopes to improve the chatbot's usability and increase its number of users.

    Using their smartphone, residents take and send a photo of their household garbage. The AI chatbot then offers instructions for its proper separation and disposal. As more people use the system, its AI will learn from the image data to become more accurate. A city official expressed hope that people will use and gradually help improve it.

    However, the system's image analysis is currently not as accurate as hoped, so it will remain in a test phase until December. If its image recognition ability has improved by then, the city will consider rolling out its full-scale operation.

    A city official stated that if the AI hits a point where it's able to make the right calls, "The system will make things more convenient for the people of the city and ease the burden on support desk staff," adding that the city hopes to move it past the test phase and increase its usership.

    (Japanese original by Yoshitaka Yamamoto, Chiba Bureau)

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