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Japanese Café Uses Remote-Control Robot Waiters

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Dawn Café allows remote work thanks to its cute robots.

Back in June, a new café opened in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo named Dawn Café. It’s a fairly simple place, serving warm drinks, tasty foods, and yummy sweets. It is also staffed primarily with robots. Despite what you may assume, though, these robots aren’t controlled by rudimentary AI, but rather human operators controlling them from hundreds of miles away and even further.

The purpose of Dawn Café’s OriHime robots, which feature cameras, microphones, and simple manipulator arms, is to allow disabled people to work customer-facing jobs. The robotic staff is controlled by operators with various physical and mental disabilities that would otherwise prevent them from working in a public industry. In addition to straightforward button and stick controls, some operators with motor impairments control the robots using only their eyes. The café was originally supposed to open last year to coincide with the Paralympics, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused some delays.

“I talk to our customers about many subjects, including the weather, my hometown and my health condition,” operator Michio Imai , who is kept home somatic symptom disorder, told AFP.

“As long as I’m alive, I want to give something back to the community by working. I feel happy if I can be a part of society.”

The café features smaller robots that chat with the customers, larger robots that move about the shop to take and deliver orders, and even a robotic barista behind the counter. These robots were developed by the café’s owner, Kentaro Yoshifuji, co-founded of robotics company Ory Laboratory, after poor health in his childhood kept him from leaving the house.

“I’m thinking about how people can have job options when they want to work,” Yoshifuji said. “This is a place where people can participate in society.”

While the robots are a big draw, Yoshifuji hopes that customers will connect with the operators behind them.

“Customers here are not exactly coming to this location just to meet OriHime,” he told AFP. “There are people operating OriHime behind the scenes, and customers will come back to see them again.”