A human’s touch still needed
Japan finds that robots have limitations for certain kinds of work
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.”
Human workers remove eyes from potatoes at a Yamazaki Group factory in Asahikawa, Japan.