Japan rolls out ‘humble and lovable’ delivery robots
“Excuse me, coming through,” a four-wheeled robot chirps as it dodges pedestrians on a street outside Tokyo, part of an experiment businesses hope will tackle labour shortages and rural isolation.
From April, revised traffic laws will allow self-driving delivery robots to navigate streets across Japan.
Proponents hope the machines could eventually help elderly people in depopulated rural areas get access to goods, while also addressing a shortage of delivery workers in a country with chronic labour shortages.
There are challenges to overcome, acknowledges Hisashi Taniguchi, president of Tokyo-based robotics firm ZMP, including safety concerns.
“They are still newcomers in human society, so it’s natural they’re seen with a bit of discomfort,” he told AFP.
The robots won’t be operating entirely alone, with humans monitoring remotely and able to intervene.
Taniguchi said it’s important the robots “are humble and lovable” to inspire confidence.
ZMP has partnered with behemoths such as Japan Post Holdings in its trials of delivery robots in Tokyo.
Its “DeliRo” robot aims for a charming look, featuring big, expressive eyes that can be made teary in sadness if pedestrians block its way.
“Every kid around here knows its name,” he said.
– ‘How about some hot drinks?’ –
There is a serious purpose behind the cuteness.
Japan has one of the world’s oldest populations, with nearly 30 percent of its citizens aged over 65. Many live in depopulated rural areas that lack easy access to daily necessities.
Labour shortages in its cities and new rules limiting overtime for truck drivers also make it difficult for businesses to keep up with pandemic-fuelled e-commerce and delivery demands.
“The shortage of workers in transport will be a challenge in the future,” said engineer Dai Fujikawa of electronics giant Panasonic, which is trialling delivery robots in Tokyo and nearby Fujisawa.
“I hope our robots will be used to take over where needed and help ease the labour crunch,” he told AFP.
Similar robots are already in use in countries such as the United Kingdom and China but there are concerns in Japan about everything from collisions to theft.
Regulations set a maximum speed of six kilometres per hour (four miles per hour), meaning the “chances of severe injury in the event of a collision are relatively small”, said Yutaka Uchimura, a robotic engineering professor at Shibaura Institute of Technology (SIT).
But if a robot “moves off the sidewalk and collides with a car due to some discrepancy between the pre-installed location data and the actual environment, that would be extremely worrying”, he said.
Panasonic says its “Hakobo” robot can judge autonomously when to turn as well as detect obstacles, such as construction and approaching bikes, and stop.
One person at the Fujisawa control centre simultaneously monitors four robots via cameras and is automatically alerted whenever their robotic charges are stuck or stopped by obstacles, Panasonic’s Fujikawa said.
Humans will intervene in such cases, as well as in high-risk areas such as junctions. Hakobo is programmed to capture and send real-time images of traffic lights to operators and await instructions.
Test runs so far have ranged from delivering medicine and food to Fujisawa residents to peddling snacks in Tokyo with disarming patter such as: “Another cold day, isn’t it? How about some hot drinks?”
– ‘A gradual process’ –
“I think it’s a great idea,” passerby Naoko Kamimura said after buying cough drops from Hakobo on a Tokyo street.
“Human store clerks might feel more reassuring but with robots, you can shop more casually. Even when there’s nothing you feel is worth buying, you can just leave without feeling guilty,” she said.
Authorities don’t believe Japanese streets will soon be teeming with robots, given the pressure to protect human employment.
“We don’t expect drastic change right away, because there are jobs at stake,” Hiroki Kanda, an official from the trade ministry promoting the technology, told AFP.
“The spread of robots will be more of a gradual process, I think.”
Experts such as SIT’s Uchimura are aware of the technology’s limitations.
“Even the simplest of tasks performed by humans can be difficult for robots to emulate,” he said.
Uchimura believes rolling the robots out in sparsely populated rural areas first would be safest. However, firms say demand in cities is likely to make urban deployment more commercially viable.
ZMP president Taniguchi hopes to eventually see the machines operating everywhere.
“I think it would make people happy if, with better communication technology, these delivery robots can patrol a neighbourhood or check on the safety of elderly people,” he said.
“Japan loves robots.”
Threat of US ban surges after TikTok lambasted in Congress
A US ban of Chinese-owned TikTok, the country’s most popular social media for young people, seems increasingly inevitable a day after the brutal grilling of its CEO by Washington lawmakers from across the political divide.
But the Biden administration will have to move carefully in denying 150 million young Americans their favorite platform over its links to China, especially after a previous effort by then president Donald Trump was struck down by a US court.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew endured a barrage of questions — and was often harshly cut off — by US lawmakers who made their belief quite clear that the app best known for sharing jokes and dance routines was a threat to US national security as well as being a danger to mental health.
In a tweet, TikTok executive Vanessa Pappas deplored a hearing “rooted in xenophobia”.
With both Republicans and Democrats against him at Congress, Chew must now confront a White House ultimatum that TikTok either sever ties with ByteDance, its China-based owners, or get banned in America.
A ban will depend on passage of legislation called the RESTRICT ACT, a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate this month that gives the US Commerce Department powers to ban foreign technology that threatens national security.
When asked about Chew’s tumultuous hearing, spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre repeated the White House’s support of the legislation, which is just one of several proposals by Congress to ban or squeeze TikTok.
– ‘Prove a negative’ –
The sell-or-get banned order tears up 2.5 years of negotiations between the White House and Tiktok to find a way for the company to keep running under its current ownership while satisfying national security concerns.
Those talks resulted in a proposal by TikTok called Project Texas in which the personal data of US users stays in the United States and would be inaccessible to Chinese law or oversight.
But the White House turned sour on the idea after officials from the FBI and the Justice Department said that the vulnerabilities to China would remain.
“It’s hard for TikTok to prove a negative ‘No, we’re not turning over any data to the Chinese government.’ Look at how skeptical our European partners are about US companies where we have a strong legal system,” said Michael Daniel, executive director of the Cyber Threat Alliance, a non-governmental organization dedicated to cybersecurity.
Presently, the White House’s preferred solution is that TikTok sever ties with ByteDance either through a sale or a spin-off.
“My understanding is that what has been… insisted on is the divestment of Tiktok by the parent company,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday.
But that option is riddled with difficulties, with many experts saying that Tiktok cannot function without ByteDance, which develops the app’s industry-leading technology.
“ByteDance’s ownership of TikTok and the golden jewel algorithm at the center of this security debate is a hot button issue that will not necessarily be solved just by a spin-off or sale of the assets,” said Dan Ives of Wedbush Securities.
Proving the point, China has ruled out giving the go-ahead for a TikTok sale, citing its own laws to protect sensitive technology from foreign buyers.
That leaves a ban which would see the full might of the US government crush TikTok to the undeniable benefit of domestic rivals Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube.
They currently trail TikTok, which is the most popular social media in the United States.
– Snapchat wins –
TikTok’s demise “will clearly benefit Meta and Snapchat front and center in the eyes of Wall Street,” said Ives, who believes the saga will play out for the rest of the year.
One unknown is whether a death sentence for TikTok will cost Washington politically among young voters.
Through a ban, “a democracy will be taking steps that impede the ability of young Americans to express themselves and earn a livelihood,” said Sarah Kreps, professor of government at Cornell University.
The lawmakers putting the Tiktok CEO over the coals minimized the danger of political blowback.
“I want to say this to all the teenagers… who think we’re just old and out of touch,” said representative Dan Crenshaw, a Republican.
“You may not care that your data is being accessed now, but there will be one day when you do care about it,” he said.
US state to require parental consent for social media
Utah on Thursday became the first US state to require social media sites to get parental consent for accounts used by under-18s, placing the burden on platforms like Instagram and TikTok to verify the age of their users.
The law, which takes effect March 2024, was brought in response to fears over growing youth addiction to social media, and to security risks such as online bullying, exploitation, and collection of children’s personal data.
But it has prompted warnings from tech firms and civil liberties groups that it could curtail access to online resources for marginalized teens, and have far-reaching implications for free speech.
“We’re no longer willing to let social media companies continue to harm the mental health of our youth,” tweeted Spencer Cox, governor of the western US state, who signed two related bills at a ceremony Thursday.
The bills also require social media firms to grant parents full access to their children’s accounts, and to create a default “curfew” blocking overnight access to children’s accounts.
They set out fines for social media companies if they target users under 18 with “addictive algorithms,” and make it easier for parents to sue social media companies for financial, physical or emotional harm.
“We hope that this is just the first step in many bills that we’ll see across the nation, and hopefully taken on by the federal government,” said state representative Jordan Teuscher, who co-sponsored the bill.
Michael McKell, a Republican member of Utah’s Senate who also sponsored the bill, said it was a “bipartisan” effort, and praised President Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union address, in which he raised the issue.
Biden last month called on US lawmakers to restrict how social media companies advertise to children and collect their data, as he accused Big Tech of conducting a “for profit” experiment on the nation’s youth.
California has already introduced online safety laws including strict default privacy settings for minors, but the Utah law goes further.
Lawmakers in states such as Ohio and Connecticut are working on similar bills.
Platforms including Instagram and TikTok have introduced more controls for parents, such as messaging limits and time caps.
At Thursday’s ceremony in Utah, McKell pointed to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which he said highlighted the toll social media apps can have on young minds.
“The impact on our daughters — and I have two daughters — it was incredibly troubling,” he said.
“Thirty percent of our daughters from ninth grade to 12th grade had seriously contemplated suicide. That’s startling.”
Google opens chatbot Bard for testing in US and UK
Google on Tuesday invited people in the United States and Britain to test its AI chatbot, known as Bard, as it scrambles to catch up with Microsoft-backed ChatGPT.
Bard, ChatGPT and other similar apps churn out essays, poems or computing code on command, though they come with warnings that the information they create can be incorrect or inappropriate.
People wishing to play with Bard can sign up on a waiting list at bard.google.com website, distinctly separate from the tech giant’s search engine.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a tweet that the move is an “early experiment” allowing people to collaborate with generative artificial intelligence (AI).
“We’ve learned a lot so far by testing Bard, and the next critical step in improving it is to get feedback from more people,” Google vice presidents Sissie Hsiao and Eli Collins said in a blog post.
“We continue to see that the more people use them, the better LLMs (large language models) get at predicting what responses might be helpful.”
As exciting as chatbots are, they have their faults, Hsiao and Collins cautioned.
They can incorporate real-world biases, stereotypes or inaccuracies in responses, according to the vice presidents.
Google has adopted a more cautious rollout of generative AI in contrast to Microsoft that has chosen to swiftly make the products available to consumers despite reports of problems.
ChatGPT’s OpenAI is backed by Microsoft, which earlier this year said it would finance the research company to the tune of billions of dollars.
OpenAI recently released a long-awaited update of its AI technology that it said would be safer and more accurate than its predecessor.
Much of the new model’s firepower is now available to the general public via ChatGPT Plus, OpenAI’s paid subscription plan and on an AI-powered version of Microsoft’s Bing search engine.
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