The robot café in Tokyo offers a new approach to inclusion of disabilities

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Michio Imai greets a customer in a Tokyo café, but not personally. Hundreds of kilometers away, he’s running a robotic waiter as part of an inclusive employment experiment.

More than a gimmick, Dawn Cafe’s robots provide employment opportunities for people who have a hard time working outside the home.

“Hello how are you?” A slender white robot in the shape of a baby penguin calls from a counter near the entrance, turns its face to the customers and waves its fins.

Imai sits at the wheel of his house in Hiroshima, 800 km away, one of around 50 employees with physical and mental disabilities who work as Dawn’s “pilots” and operate robots.

The cafe opened in the central Nihonbashi district of Tokyo in June and employs people across Japan and overseas, as well as some who work locally.

It was originally supposed to open in parallel with the Paralympics last year, but the opening has been postponed due to the pandemic – just like the games that started on Tuesday.

Around 20 miniature robots with almond-shaped eyes sit on tables and in other parts of the café, which has no stairs and smooth wooden floors big enough for wheelchairs.

The OriHime machines have cameras, a microphone and a loudspeaker so operators can communicate with customers remotely.

“May I take your order?” one asks, next to a tablet with a menu with burgers, curry and salad.

Dawn Cafe starts at the start of the Tokyo Paralympics. | AFP-JIJI

While customers chat with the pilots who operate the mini-robots, three larger, humanoid versions move around to serve drinks or greet customers at the entrance.

And at the bar there is even a barista robot in a brown apron that can prepare coffee with a French press.

But the robots are largely a medium through which workers can communicate with customers.

“I speak to our customers about a variety of topics, including the weather, my hometown and my health,” said Imai, who has a somatic symptom disorder that makes it difficult to leave the home.

“As long as I live, I want to give something back to the community through my work. I am happy when I can be part of society. “

Other operators have a number of different skills, including some amyotrophic lateral sclerosis patients who use eye movements on a special digital panel to send signals to the robots.

The project is the brainchild of Kentaro Yoshifuji, an entrepreneur who co-founded the Ory Laboratory company that makes the robots.

After suffering poor health as a child that resulted in his unable to go to school, he began to think about ways to get people into work even if they can’t leave their homes.

“I think about how people can have job options when they want to work,” said the 33-year-old.

“Here people can participate in social life.”

He started the café with support from big corporations and crowdfunding, and says the experiment is about more than just robots.

“The customers here don’t come to this place to meet OriHime,” he said in the cafe.

“There are people who run OriHime behind the scenes and customers will come back to see them again.”

The café opens at the start of the Paralympics and advocates of disabilities debate Japan’s progress towards inclusion and accessibility.

A team of around 50 workers, who are based in their own four walls, serve the robot workers in the Dawn Cafe.  |  AFP-JIJI
A team of around 50 workers who are based in their own four walls runs the robot workers in the Dawn Cafe. | AFP-JIJI

Since winning the bid to host the Games in 2013, Tokyo has announced its efforts to make public facilities more accessible.

However, support for inclusion remains limited, said Seiji Watanabe, head of a nonprofit organization in Aichi Prefecture that supports the employment of people with disabilities.

In March the government revised the rules to raise the minimum percentage of disabled workers in a company from 2.2% to 2.3%.

“The level is too low,” said Watanabe. “And Japanese companies don’t have a culture of hiring various human resources on their own initiative.”

At dawn, Mamoru Fukaya said that he and his 17-year-old son enjoyed the café on a lunch break.

“(The pilot) was very friendly,” said the 59-year-old. “Since he said he can’t work outside of his home, it’s great that there is such an opportunity.”

Yoshifuji is now focused on the café project, but believes that one day robots could even make the Paralympics more inclusive.

“There is a possibility that some kind of new Paralympic Games for bedridden people will be created,” he said.

“We could even create new sports. That could be interesting.”

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