By Tim Kelly and Akira Tomoshige
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s first robot bartender has begun serving up drinks in a Tokyo pub in a test that could usher in a wave of automation in restaurants and shops struggling to hire staff in an aging society.
The repurposed industrial robot serves drinks in is own corner of a Japanese pub operated by restaurant chain Yoronotaki. An attached tablet computer face smiles as it chats about the weather while preparing orders.
The robot, made by the company QBIT Robotics, can pour a beer in 40 seconds and mix a cocktail in a minute. It uses four cameras to monitors customers to analyze their expressions with artificial intelligence (AI) software.
“I like it because dealing with people can be a hassle. With this you can just come and get drunk,” Satoshi Harada, a restaurant worker said after ordering a drink.
“If they could make it a little quicker it would be even better.”
Finding workers, especially in Japan’s service sector, is set to get even more difficult.
The government has eased visa restrictions to attract more foreign workers but companies still face a labor shortage as the population shrinks and the number of people over 65 increases to more than a third of the total.
Service companies that can’t relocate overseas or take advantage of automation are more vulnerable than industrial firms. In health care alone, Japan expects a shortfall of 380,000 workers by 2025.
Japan wants to use the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games beginning on July 27 to showcase service robot technology, with organizers planning to use robots built by Toyota Motor and Panasonic Corp to help visitors, workers and athletes.
The robot bartender trial at the pub, which employs about 30 people, will last two months after which Yoronotaki will assess the results.
“We hope it’s a solution,” Yoshio Momiya, a Yoronotaki manager, said as the robot bartender served drinks behind him.
“There are still a number of issues to work through, such as finding enough space for it, but we hope it will be something we can use.”
At about 9 million yen ($82,000), the robot cost as much as employing a human bartender for three years.
(Reporting by Tim Kelly and Akira Tomoshige; Editing by Robert Birsel)