FamilyMart to Test Shelf-Stocking Robots in Japan

If the test succeeds, more robots will roll out to stores.

October 13, 2020

TOKYO—This month, FamilyMart, Japan’s second largest convenience store chain, will begin testing a robot designed to stack sandwiches, drinks and meals on store shelves, according to Retail News Asia.

As NACS Daily reported in July, the machine from maker Telexistence Inc. is a humanoid robot with stereo cameras, binaural microphones and haptic sensors. If the trial is a success, FamilyMart says it plans to have robot workers in 20 stores around Tokyo by 2022.

FamilyMart’s robot looks vaguely like a kangaroo, and the quirky design is meant to help shoppers feel at ease since many people can feel uncomfortable around human-looking robots. Although robots can outperform humans in manufacturing plants, they have problems handing simple tasks in unpredictable urban settings. Solving that performance problem could help businesses in industrialized nations—such as rapidly aging Japan—cope with fewer available workers. Currently, there are about 1.6 million people in Japan, who for various reasons are not active in the workforce.

At first, the robots will be operated remotely by humans. But the machines’ artificial intelligence (AI) can learn to mimic human movements. “It advances the scope and scale of human existence,” said Jin Tomioka, CEO, Telexistence.

Using human operators with virtual reality goggles and motion-sensor controls to train the machines can slash the cost of retail robotics when compared to programming them with software, which can cost 10 times more and require months to complete, Telexistence said. Although FamilyMart will still need humans to control its robots, those operators can be anywhere and include people who would not normally work in stores, said Tomohiro Kano, a general manager.

“It’s difficult to tell now what impact robots might have in restaurants—it could mean fewer people, but it could also create new jobs,” said Niki Harada, an official at Japan’s Restaurant Workers Union.

Don’t expect to have a robot working in your home anytime soon though. That might take another 20 years, according to Takeo Kanade, an AI and robotics scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. “In order for robots to be really usable at home, we really have to be able to communicate,” he said. “The fundamental thing lacking is knowing how humans behave.”