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The human in the machine: These robots are making the workplace more inclusive for disabled people

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In this picture taken on August 17, 2021, a humanoid robot delivers drinks to customers at the Dawn Café in Tokyo.
In this picture taken on August 17, 2021, a humanoid robot delivers drinks to customers at the Dawn Café in Tokyo.   -   Copyright  AFP
By AFP

While there are plenty of shiny new examples of robots taking over human jobs, like building houses or making pizzas, here is one café that is bucking the trend despite recruiting robot waiters of their own.

These bots greet and chat with customers but they are not AI-powered. Instead, they rely on human operators who are sometimes thousands of kilometres away.

Each 'OriHime-D' bot is equipped with cameras, a microphone, and speakers and allows the operator to communicate with clients remotely.

Some 20 mini-bots sit on each table and display a menu of burgers, curry, and salad on a tablet display built into the machine. Meanwhile, three larger humanoid robots sweep through the restaurant carrying drinks or food and greeting customers at the entrance.

It is all part of café owner Kentaro Yoshifuji’s vision to make his workplace more inclusive of people living with disabilities.

AI creating new jobs

Yoshifuji himself spent years confined to the home as a child due to bad health. It was this experience that inspired him to find ways to bring people in a similar situation into the workforce.

"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".

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.
Michio Imai
Dawn café Employee

“In that sense, AI making decisions and doing everything, that's different from our concept," he added.

It is an idea that has proved a hit with the robot pilots who have relished the opportunity to participate in the workforce.

"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," said Michio Imai, an employee at Dawn café who suffers from a somatic symptom disorder.

"I talk to our customers about many subjects, including the weather, my hometown and my health condition".

Paralympics highlighting accessiblity

The café's launch comes ahead of the opening of the Paralympics which disability advocates hope will ignite debate about Japan’s progress on inclusion and accessibility.

Since their successful bid to host the Games in 2013, Tokyo has highlighted its efforts to make public amenities more accessible to people with disabilities.

However, Seiji Watanabe who leads a non-profit organisation supporting employment for people with disabilities believes there is still a long way to go.

"The level is too low," Watanabe said.

"And Japanese companies don't have a culture of hiring diverse human resources on their own initiative".

For more on this story, watch the video in the media player above.

Video editor • Aisling Ní Chúláin