Feeling weird about being served by robot staff? What if your humanoid waiter was creating employment opportunities for flesh-and-bone workers living with disabilities?
It turns out not all robots are out there stealing our jobs. Some are actually making employment more inclusive. Where? But of course, Japan!
Enter DAWN (Diverse Avatar Working Network) robot cafe. On the menu, you’ll find vegetable stew, curry, burgers, and inclusivity. As well as Tokyo’s most future-positive coffee, of course.
The accessible, barrier-free cafe floor is busy with robot staff. There’s a robot greeting customers at the door, one to help them find a seat, and another to recommend daily specials and take their orders. And then there’s the popular Tele-Barista, a humanoid coffee artist that will take care of your pumpkin spice latte at the bar.
If the thought of asking Siri to get your coffee order right is making your palms sweat already, you should know that it’s the human touch that makes this cafe special. The 120 cm-tall OriHime and OriHime-D humanoids serve as avatars for human workers who pilot them remotely — pilots are the ones interacting with customers, suggesting items from the menu, and making sure that your coffee is just the way you like it.
The cafe employs human pilots who live with disabilities to control the robots in the cafe, creating inclusive hospitality jobs for workers who can’t leave their houses and are, in many cases, bedridden. Workers living with severe disabilities, whom DAWN’s creators refer to as ‘bedridden veterans’, can use a mouse, iPad, or gaze-controlled remote to control the robots from a wheelchair or a bed.
According to the health ministry of Japan, more than 7% of the population live with a disability. The whole purpose of DAWN is to “create and share opportunities for those who want to work, but cannot do so due to their medical or physical conditions” as explained on the website. They write:
“Our ultimate goal is to use technology as a means to lower the many obstacles that prevent people from participating evenly in society, creating a more inclusive society where avatar robots are the norm.”
Most of the OriHime humanoids carry iPads so customers can get to know the person piloting the avatar. If you’re ordering a coffee at the Tele-Barista station, a flesh-and-bone remote expert will guide you through the different beans available and even suggest the right chocolate to pair with your choice of coffee. Pilots who work with the OriHime-D model can change the eye colour of their avatar depending on their mood on any given day, or match it to their favourite sports team, a feature that’s been added solely for the pilots to express their personalities. At the back of the cafe, customers can try the OriHime out and become a pilot for an in-store robot operation experience (although they cannot use the robot to serve other customers.)
“I believe that my life has a purpose and is not being wasted. Being useful, able to help other people, even feeling needed by others is so motivating.” — Shota Kuwahara, DAWN cafe robot pilot
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Kentaro Yoshifuji, co-founder and CEO of Ory Laboratory, the tech start-up behind the cafe, had to be hospitalised multiple times during high school and was unable to attend school in person for long periods of time. The experience inspired him to study robotics and “use technology to ease the life of people who were not able to participate in the normal social sphere, be it work or socialising.” In 2012, his first “OriHime”, an avatar communication robot to fight loneliness, won him the Human Power Award. The Origami aficionado writes on the company website:
“I want to make it so that people are able to meet the people they want even while staying in their sickbed, and at the same time I am aiming to create a future where everyone can participate in society.”
The unique DAWN concept was first piloted with a series of pop-ups in 2018. But customers loved it so much that today, DAWN Cafe is a permanent favourite among residents of the Nihonbashi district.
▶️ Hear from the humans behind the humanoids:
AtlasAction: DAWN cafe is currently open and organising seasonal events. You must make a reservation for a seat in sections A and B (where the robots operate.) Check its website and social media accounts to plan your visit.
► Robot lover? Discover the robots at work to solve some very human challenges, proving that often robot=friend.
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