Alibaba launches robo-porter, Japan hires disabled people to operate robots
asian robots - the nippon foundation and alibaba preview the future of robot employment

Alibaba launches robo-porter, Japan hires disabled people to operate robots

There’s plenty of debate surrounding the impact that robotics and artificial intelligence will have on the job sector. Among reams of recent reports, the World Economic Forum this month predicted that many middle-class professionals are at risk from the technologies, despite a global net gain of 58 million jobs by 2022.

Looking east, the Asia Development Bank paints a similarly positive picture, while a PwC report predicts that China will benefit most from the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

However, two news items from China and Japan have emerged this week that typify the complicated relationship between emerging technologies and traditional notions of employment.

Alibaba’s Space Egg to roam hotel corridors

First is ecommerce behemoth Alibaba’s unveiling of the ‘Space Egg’, a robot porter whose clumsy name belies its smooth lines and potential ability to transform the hotel business.

The Space Egg was launched last week at a technology conference in Hangzhou, China, and is set to begin work at a hotel in the same city this October.

The robot will replace traditional porters, trundling along hotel corridors at one meter per second to deliver room service. In the promotional videos, Alibaba is keen to point out that the device will free up more time for human staff to focus on keeping guests happy.

It’s a positive spin that we’ve heard before, but there’s little doubt that the Space Egg and its like will eventually put plenty of low-skilled hospitality workers out of a job. Japan’s Henn-na robot-staffed hotel, for example, was conceived to maximise the profits of its owners by removing human beings from the employment equation.

However, there’s no denying the technical feat unveiled by Alibaba, which has invested in AI, autonomous vehicles, and robotics, alongside its retail business. The robot integrates with the hotel’s Wi-Fi to open elevators and communicate with guests, and uses onboard cameras and lasers to navigate around obstacles.

Lijuan Chen of Alibaba AI Labs said the robot will “bridge the gap between guest needs and the response time that they expect. The robot will be the ultimate assistant for hotel guests who want everything quickly and conveniently at their fingertips.”

This video explains more:

Japanese cafe hiring disabled humans to control robot waiters

While automation and robotic systems will put some humans out of work, a charity in Tokyo, Japan, is using the same technology to enable people to work who would otherwise not be able to.

The Nippon Foundation has announced that it will run an experimental cafe with a difference: Instead of being served by human waiters, visitors will be looked after by robots who are remotely controlled by people with severe physical disabilities.

Robots are tipped to transform social care in Japan by 2020, and this claims to be another example of the technology being used to combat social isolation.

Human workers will take control of the OriHime-D robot, developed by Ory Laboratory, which is equipped with a camera and a speaker to help it interact with customers and deliver coffees. According to the company, an eye-tracking input system means that even workers with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) will be able to control the robot.

The Nippon foundation’s cafe will open in the company’s building in Tokyo during November and December. Ory Laboratory plans to open a permanent cafe with robot waiters in time for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in the capital.

Internet of Business says

Asia’s relationship with robots is markedly different to that of the US and UK. While many people in the West feel uncomfortable around robots, and the tabloid press focuses on Terminators, door-opening robo-dogs, and malign, job-stealing machines, in Japan and China they often have the status of pop culture icons.

These two news stories are challenging in different ways. On the one hand, the Chinese robo-porter arrives with promises of better roles for humans, but with an implicit agenda to cut jobs and reduce costs.

On the other, the Japan charity story poses some interesting questions. This intriguing and innovative idea has positive intentions, but whether severely disabled will feel empowered by it – while being given a new opportunity to work – or made to feel uncomfortable by being linked strongly (and remotely) with machines is another matter.

Will they feel more or less isolated and undervalued? We welcome your views.

Additional reporting: Chris Middleton.

Plus: Researchers develop drones controlled by eye

In related news, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, the US Army Research Laboratory, and New York University are have developed a drone that can be controlled via lightweight gaze-tracking glasses and a small computing unit, meaning that the drone will fly wherever the ‘pilot’ looks.