Using robots as waiters may not be a novel idea, as there are quite a few cafés and restaurants around the world that are doing just that, but having physically disabled people remotely operate robots to wait on customers is not only novel but noble, too.
In a pilot project, an upcoming café in Tokyo’s Akasaka district will employ people with chronic physical disabilities to remotely operate OriHime-D robots to serve its customers on weekdays between November 26 and December 7.
So, people suffering from severe disabilities, like, for example, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ASL), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – a progressive neurodegenerative affliction that weakens the muscles – can now work with dignity from the comfort of their homes.
The 1.2-meter 20-kilogram OriHime-D robots are manufactured by Ory Lab. Inc, whose CEO Kentaro Yoshifuji knows firsthand what being socially isolated means, since he himself suffered from a stress-induced illness as a child and had difficulty communicating.
The robots come equipped with a camera and a speaker and can stream footage to the controller’s PC or tablet over the internet.
Additionally, an eye-tracking input capability in the robots’ control system makes it possible even for people with advanced stages of ALS to operate the robots.
“I want to create a world in which people who can’t move their bodies can work too,” he said.
Ory Lab, by the way, is planning on opening a similar type of café featuring its OriHime-D robots, but on a permanent basis, ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
Masatane Muto – an ALS patient involved in the project – says that “everyone should have the freedom to work in the way they like,” adding that he wants to “send out the message toward 2020 that you can show hospitality even if you have disabilities.”
During an August demonstration of how the system would work, a robot waiter operated by a physically disabled person by the name of Nozomi Murata asked a family to sample some chocolates.
Murata suffers from autophagic vacuolar myopathy – a debilitating disease that causes atrophy of the muscles.
Ory Lab also produces a smaller 21.5-cm 600g robot that is mostly used in Japan for representing employees who couldn’t make it to work due to illness or other reasons.
Elderly care is another area where robots play a significant role in Japan, with a plethora of caregivers increasing deploying robots to not only help their patients move but also to keep them company in the absence of humans.
Japan’s Ministry for Economy, Trade, and Industry, estimates that robotic services will become a $4 billion-a-year industry by 2035, which is a 25-fold increase from current figures.
Because of his illness, Kentaro was unable to attend school from the age of ten until he was 14 years old.
His penchant for machines and robots led him to invent a new mechanism for an electric wheelchair when he was in high school, for which he was honored with the Grand Award 3rd at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) as a representative of Japan, in 2005.