Beep. Are you being served? Bzzzz

Minami started work at Takashimaya department store in Osaka, Japan in October 2013. Since then she has dealt with over 1,000 customers, honing her sales skills. On her third stint at the store in May this year she was reassigned to the men's shirt department, with a sales target of ¥500,000.

Minami's a softly spoken “woman". Her performance suggests her customers clearly hold stock in her shirt recommendations. She's also an android and there's a feeling that while a sales girl might be motivated by her target, at least an android would tell them the honest truth.

"Japan is leading the production of the walking, talking, weirdly human robots – and is rolling them out to the front line of service industries."
Elizabeth Masamune, Managing Director of @Asia Associates Japan

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Photo Credit: Attila JANDI /

In Japan, with its long history of robots – in manufacturing, as toys and in culture – the android sales assistant started work basically as a talking point. But she's far from alone.

And nor is the cultural challenge she – and her ever more human-like descendants – will present.

Take Softbank's Pepper, billed as the first robot with emotions. It is primarily being marketed as a personal companion. A recently divorced Japanese friend of mine confessed he was considering buying himself a Pepper to serve as his companion into old age; dogs and cats have shorter life spans and need looking after. But he told me “Pepper remembered my face when I went to visit it for the second time at a demonstration site. And it probably wouldn't make annoying remarks to me…".

Cross-dressing Japanese TV personality Matsuko Deluxe has had an android version of herself developed called “Matsukoroid" with whom she holds weirdly realistic conversations on her late night program. In a fascinating TV shopping experiment, Matsukoroid sold significantly more diamond necklaces in a single segment than Matsuko herself, proving once again the facts-based technique employed by androids seems to appeal to consumers wary of yet another hard sell.

Industrial robots may now be commonplace around the world but Japan is leading the way in the production of the walking, talking, weirdly human kind – and is rolling them out to the front line of its service industries. No longer are we confined to watching 3PO and R2D2 on the big screen. Whether in the form of Honda's ASIMO or Toshiba's life-like “Android Hostess", ChihiraAico unveiled this January, robots are slowly becoming part of the fabric of life in Japan.

In addition to Pepper, Tokyo-based Flower Robotics is looking to provide us soon with Patin, a “skating" mobile robot for the home that will anticipate and respond to our immediate needs, turn up the lights, water the plants and manage the heating without requiring a single instruction.

Pepper has been marketed as the world's first robot able to generate its own emotions. Thanks to its “emotion engine" Pepper can recognise human emotions and simulate them. It can also learn new skills as it spends more time with users and connects through the Softbank cloud to other Peppers.

A limited number of 1,000 went on sale in June this year for a relatively reasonable price of ¥213,840 but, when factoring in fees for insurance and apps, the total cost in the first three years rises to more than ¥1 million. The first 1,000 units of Pepper sold out in just one minute, making news around the globe. Mizuho Financial Group has been an early adopter, using Pepper at one of its central branches for entertainment, product advice and customer support, with a plan to roll out five more units soon.

Although Pepper may still only be a glorified butler that is not very good at housework, Softbank and its business partners are taking the long-term view the droid is at the front line of an AI revolution whose time has come.

But what sort of an AI revolution is it? A technical one, to be sure. And of course, an industrial one, you may say, as any disruptive change on this scale has the potential to displace workers from jobs and remake markets. To be sure, there will be threats and opportunities that will emerge from the next wave of AI. But the one thing we haven't seen before is the beginnings of a cultural change in the way humans interact both with each other and with robots alike.

The baby seal palliative robot “paro" developed by AIST, a leading Japanese industrial automation pioneer, has been a big hit in Japanese nursing homes and hospitals for similar reasons. It looks, feels and sounds like a baby seal. It will coo when you pet it and cry when you squeeze it too hard. It knows its name and the sound of your voice. It can easily be mistaken for a real animal. And that's the point. Rather than physical care for residents and patients, it helps to meet their emotional needs in a similar way to therapy animals; unlike dogs, however, “paro" never has a bad day or gets tired of being patted.

Just as industrial robots have been designed to improve efficiency, androids are being designed for human interaction. This poses a greater question of what the android-human “relationship" will be, and indeed a need to clarify in greater detail than ever before what it really means to be “human".

It's an echo of Ridley Scott's dystopic view of the future, Bladerunner, based on the Philip K. Dick novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Who was more “human", the film asked, androids with implanted emotions and empathy or the cold but human “blade runner" bounty hunters? Set in a Los Angeles of the future, the production design was heavily influenced by urban Japan.

According to Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University, one of Japan's leading android inventors, the quest to make increasingly better and more life-like androids really rests on a more detailed understanding of the human existence. Where does being an android stop and where does the line between android and human start?

As in the movie “HER", where the character played by Joaquin Phoenix finds he is in love with his “OS" girlfriend Samantha only to be left behind when she evolved on to another plane of existence, the “sci-fi days" of humans forming lasting relationships with androids may be closer than we think.

For the time being, however, research is continuing in Japan into whether robots can really perform when it comes to the crunch and what sort of challenge they might present to the labour market in the short-term. Professor Noriko Arai of the National Institute of Informatics has been heading up an AI grand challenge project since 2011 entitled “Can a robot get into Tokyo University"? Japan is well known for the lack of creativity and focus on rote learning in its education system, so many readers might presume the answer is YES. But, sadly, or perhaps fortunately for humans depending on your viewpoint, robots have yet to pass the test.

Professor Arai notes that while a robot can remember the unique features of your face, it is unable to distinguish between a photograph of a dog and a cat. What it is that defines a cat's face? The ears? (some dogs have similar ears) The fur? (some cats have no fur..) and so on. These types of judgment are still beyond the realm of AI. For now…

In the meantime, androids and robots alike are continuing to draw fascinated crowds across Japan. Service industries may be regenerated by their presence and the target audience is no longer confined to the Japanese. Tourism is booming in Japan, with visitors from China, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand topping the list.

You can join the ranks of tourists from around the world who watch the robots dance at the Robot Restaurant in Kabukicho, Tokyo, which offers the usual array of skimpily clad dancing girls but in this case as the supporting cast to the stars of the show, the robots. As loud and gaudy as it gets, the robots are a perfect fit in Kabukicho.

Or if your tastes extend to the even more futuristic, you can take a trip to the Huis Ten Bosch resort in Nagasaki and stay at the recently opened Hen Na Hotel (“Strange Hotel") staffed almost exclusively by robots, the brain-child of the far-sighted CEO of travel agency H.I.S., Hideo Sawada. Sawada believes that just as low-cost airlines have now become a preferred option for many, so too will no-frills low-cost hotels. Hen na Hotel is fully automated, with facial recognition to open your room door and automated luggage porterage and service. From roughly 9,000 yen a night the room rates are certainly competitive.

The English-speaking head-bobbing dinosaur wearing a bow-tie at reception and the tulip shaped Churi-chan robot that controls your room environment are sure to be instant crowd pleasers. Sawada is not stopping at Japan and has regional if not global ambitions to roll out more Hen Na Hotels soon.

As Hen Na Hotel demonstrates, the proliferation of robots in service industries,not only in Japan, but right across the Asian region itself could be just around the corner. The question still remains: “Would you buy a shirt from a robot?" Until they are programmed to politely bend the truth, you can count me in.

Elizabeth Masamune is a former Senior Trade Commissioner for Austrade in North and South East Asia. She is Managing Director of @Asia Associates Japan, based in Tokyo.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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