A hu­man’s touch still needed

Ja­pan finds that ro­bots have lim­i­ta­tions for cer­tain kinds of work

Orlando Sentinel - - BUSINESS - By Mo­toko Rich

ASAHIKAWA, Ja­pan — Re­mov­ing the tiny eyes that pock­mark pota­toes is dull, repet­i­tive and time-con­sum­ing work — per­fect, it would seem, for ro­bots in a coun­try where the pop­u­la­tion is de­clin­ing and work­ers are in­creas­ingly in short sup­ply.

But it’s not so sim­ple.

When a food pro­cess­ing plant that makes potato salad and stews in Hokkaido, Ja­pan’s north­ern­most is­land, tried out a ro­bot pro­to­type de­signed to re­move the pota­toes’ eyes, the ma­chine was not up to the task.

The ro­bot’s cam­era sen­sors were not sen­si­tive enough to iden­tify ev­ery eye. While hu­man hands can roll a potato in ev­ery di­rec­tion, the ro­bot could ro­tate the vegetables on only one axis and so failed to dig out many of the blem­ishes that are toxic to hu­mans. Other per­fectly good pieces were carved away.

“Fun­da­men­tally, it could not do the work to the stan­dard of hu­mans,” said Ak­i­hito Shibayama, a fac­tory man­ager at Ya­mazaki

Group, which op­er­ates the plant in Asahikawa, a mid­size city in Hokkaido where 30 work­ers process about 15 tons of pota­toes a day.

Ja­pan, the world’s third-largest econ­omy, hopes that ro­bots and other types of au­to­ma­tion will help solve its de­mo­graphic prob­lems and im­pend­ing la­bor short­age.

But busi­nesses are strug­gling as some jobs that seem ripe for a ro­botic takeover prove re­mark­ably dif­fi­cult to out­source to a ma­chine.

Ro­bots can “per­form sim­ple tasks but not tasks that re­quire judg­ment or the abil­ity to eval­u­ate a change in a sit­u­a­tion,” said Toshiya Okuma, as­so­ci­ate di­rec­tor of global strat­egy in the ro­bot busi­ness divi­sion of Kawasaki Heavy In­dus­tries, a lead­ing Ja­panese de­vel­oper of robotics that has long helped au­to­mate car fac­tory assem­bly lines.

Still, how­ever hos­pitable Ja­panese busi­nesses have been to ro­bots, they have learned that ro­bots able to per­form some­what so­phis­ti­cated tasks cost much more than hu­man work­ers.

At the fac­tory in Asahikawa, where about 60% of the work is au­to­mated, many tasks still re­quire the hu­man touch. Work­ers peel pump­kins, for ex­am­ple, be­cause some skin en­hances the fla­vor of stew. A ro­bot can’t de­ter­mine just how much skin to shuck off.

Help­ing drive the in­ter­est in ro­bots are con­cerns about the de­clin­ing pop­u­la­tion in Ja­pan, where births are at their low­est level since 1874. Al­ready in­dus­tries, in­clud­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing, are start­ing to run low of work­ers.

In Ja­pan, “in­stead of dis­plac­ing work­ers, you are sim­ply re­plac­ing work­ers,” said Todd Snei­der, deputy divi­sion chief for the Ja­pan divi­sion of the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund.

Although a bill was passed last year to grant new visas to for­eign work­ers to help cope with short­ages, the gov­ern­ment has con­sis­tently em­pha­sized ro­bots as more likely sav­iors.

“So where you would po­ten­tially have im­mi­grants do­ing the jobs, you say, ‘Go make ro­bots,’ ” said Selma Sa­banovic, a pro­fes­sor of cog­ni­tive science at In­di­ana Univer­sity who was a vis­it­ing scholar at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Ad­vanced In­dus­trial Science and Technology in Tsukuba, Ja­pan.

Busi­ness lead­ers have ex­pressed doubts that for­eign­ers could quickly solve Ja­pan’s need for work­ers.

“Ja­pan has kind of a very pure-blood race,” said Norit­sugu Ue­mura, an ex­ec­u­tive in charge of gov­ern­ment and ex­ter­nal re­la­tions for Mit­subishi Elec­tric, a lead­ing elec­tron­ics man­u­fac­turer. “I think not only could it take 20 or 30 years, but it will take more like 40 or 50 years to in­te­grate im­mi­grants into Ja­pan.”

NORIKO HAYASHI/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Hu­man work­ers re­move eyes from pota­toes at a Ya­mazaki Group fac­tory in Asahikawa, Ja­pan.

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