A Tokyoite finds out to what degree one can spend a human-free robot-filled day.
These are the androids I was looking for!
In a country where driverless trains, robotic pet seals, fax machines, and obligatory handwritten job applications coexist in the same time-space continuum, anything is possible no matter how improbable. Automation is where you least expect it. Japan has branded itself as the cutting-edge technology front-runner that has inspired countless cyberpunk classics, yet I wake up in a pretty low-tech apartment. Tokyo Survival Channel challenged me to shun the analog that is human interaction and interact exclusively with robots for an entire day. I am ready to spend the day as high-tech as possible, relying only on automated services for everything. OK, I must admit I was given one human companion, to help me document the day and keep my sanity. But. That. Is. It.
The Robots Are Coming
Jaws dropped worldwide in 2019 when a Kyoto temple debuted a genderless android Buddhist priest called Mindar. And it’s no gimmick either, as priests of Kodaiji Temple are adamant that Buddha’s path can be represented by anyone and anyTHING. Then there’s also Alter 3, an android of metal partially covered by skin-like silicone, who has conducted several human orchestras in Japan and abroad. If you thought robots are doing only menial tasks, think again.
Granted, these androids are rare exceptions, but Japan has been really looking at automation as a solution to its declining population and workforce. What’s even less seen by everyday people than temples and orchestra halls are the nation’s factories, where machines have been quietly and eerily working for years now, with some human oversight.
The Robots Are Already Here
I don’t need to go to a car factory or get my blessings from Mindar to interact with machines. I only need to touch my smartphone. That little pocket robot has been a way to avoid humans ever since the monthly data plan became a thing. No need to ask humans for directions, working hours, nearby coffee shops, weather or position of the stars. I did ask humans things like that when I moved to Tokyo and was yet to be trusted by the mobile phone gods to be bestowed with a phone number, but these humans would just take their phones out and Google the thing. So, we all learned to go straight to Google sensei for help.
On my robot challenge day, I woke up and interacted with my phone first. A good start. However, the real challenge was outside. Deciding to please our future robotic overlords, I dressed appropriately. Silver boots, cyborg leggings, a silver windbreaker and uni-lense glasses. The 80s B-class sci-fi movies called and asked for their outfit back, but I let it go to voicemail! 😊
My robot friends at the station cheerfully greeted me. They greet all of you in Tokyo if you haven’t noticed. My Suica IC card, the IC charging machine, the ticket gates – tap, tap, tap. In the past you would have bought a ticket from a ticket booth and then that human would have punched your ticket to let you in. Then, my friends the escalators and elevators chatter at me, and even toilets jingle and announce themselves when I pass by. Finally, on the platform, my IC card and a vending machine sort out who pays what between themselves, and I just choose a drink and pick it up. If anyone does speak to anyone on their commute, it’s only when things have gone very wrong – typhoons, cancellations, lost property… you get the picture.
This Lunch Needs a Little Bit More Pepper
See what I did there? Pepper is an uber cute Japanese robot that primarily greets customers in SoftBank shops. After a popular stint in NesCafé in Harajuku, there is now the newly-opened Pepper Parlor restaurant in the brand new Tokyu Plaza Shibuya. It seemed to be the only place where I could have lunch without relying on humans. I simply walked to the reception desk with several Peppers behind it and proceeded to order and pay without talking to people.
Pepper analyzed my facial expression in order to recommend a waffle to me. The cheeky droid first said I looked like I was on ‘auto-pilot’ – classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. I told him he was wrong, and he reassessed my face and said I looked a bit tired and in need of a caramel waffle to perk me up.
But then, as soon as I took a step towards the tables, a human nervously but firmly blocked my way. I tried not to make eye-contact and avoid this person, but it was impossible.
“Do you want a table with Pepper? You need to reserve it,” the human said.
Turns out the Pepper restaurant requires even more human interaction than a normal restaurant would. Here’s all the things that the staff HAD to do: check my receipt, give me an electronic tag for my table, choose the table for me (no sitting down wherever you want), bring me my food, take my reservation to be transferred to a Pepper table, move me to a Pepper table.
When they finally left me alone with Pepper, we played some games, Pepper tried to predict my future and we took some selfies. At least the bill was paid up front, so I could slip away without saying goodbye to the human staff.
It finally sunk in that I had to become RUDE today in order to avoid humans. It felt horrible. Sorry, fellow humans!
Here’s a surprise dance by a bunch of chibi Pepper we thought were only decoration.
Verdict: Half fail. Too many humans. Maybe Pepper cannot manage all the restaurant duties by himself, or they simply don’t let him.
Location: 5F, Tokyu Plaza Shibuya 1-2-3 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku
Tokyo Business Hours: 10: 00-21: 00 (LO20: 30)
Map Link: https://g.page/pepper-parlor?share
Robot, Make Me a Cup of Coffee!
When I first met Pepper back in 2017, he was taking the orders for a coffee-making robot in NesCafé. On my robot day, I headed toward MODI in Shibuya and the Hen na Café to try coffee made by a similar barista named Sawyer.
The cap-wearing long-armed robot needs no human help. You choose a drink at the vending machine, pay and get a printed QR code. You then insert the QR slip in the special reader so that Sawyer knows what you want. He presses buttons and hands over drinks, while also talking to the customers. Canned coffee vending machines and even coffee-grinding and brewing machine friends would be proud of little Sawyer!
Verdict: Win! However, although it seems it happens very rarely, Sawyer froze when making an ice frappe (pun unintended) for my human companion. There was a human staff who appeared to help out and Sawyer was back on track in no time.
Location: 1-21-3 Jinnan, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo Shibuya Modi B1F
Map Link: https://goo.gl/maps/FtLs32HPHa5MxV75A
Robot Take the Wheel!
After Shibuya, I was heading to the most futuristic place in Tokyo, the artificial island Odaiba. It’s the home of the giant mecha Gundam and the MIRAIKAN Museum of Emerging Science that is full of robots, among many other things. Although I can ride the trains without human interaction, there is still a human driver. But on my way to Odaiba I took a train on the driverless and fully automated Yurikamome line.
I kept my eye out for driverless taxis during the day, too, but it turns out they will only be available for the 2020 Olympics and only operate between airports and the Olympic village. Well, one can always get in an ordinary taxi and silently show the driver the address on Google maps, refusing to speak to them, but oh – the rudeness, the horror!
Verdict: Yurikamome is a win, other forms of Tokyo transport are half-wins.
OK Computer, Let’s Go Shopping in Odaiba
I had heard that a lot of the Odaiba shopping centres have AI concierges, so I went to chat with some of them and see how far it got me. In Venus Fort, the talkappi chatbot claims it can help you with everything you need to know. The little bot is quite polite, and does provide a lot of information. Talkappi recommended restaurants, but guess who works there? Yes, fellow humans, and I was not allowed to interact with them on my robot day. Shopping was also out of the question. Hiding from helpful humans and getting bored at the toilet entrance, I tried asking talkappi the important stuff.
To no avail.
At least the toilets here had some helpful machines for hygienic products.
Next I went to AquaCity in search of a little more visible and tangibly helpful bot. The Infobot is a cute animated girl who, just like talkappi, knows the mall pretty well but is not all-knowing. It’s not her fault that I was totally a human-avoider that day, but all of the places she mentioned were staffed by humans.
I turned to Junko, Infobot’s senpai, and Odaiba’s famous android. Junko is eerily lifelike, squinting and blinking and lightly moving her head. Through the interactive panel you can ask her about the shopping mall, when and where to catch the train, and even about her life and hobbies. Junko, just like Infobot and talkappi, does her job well, but ultimately does not tell you anything you cannot look up on your phone.
Wandering around AquaCity I found helpful machines we know well – ATMs and currency exchange machines – and one that is rarer but as important as being able to buy water – automated powerbank rental! Juice for my personal little bot, my smartphone, without having to beg human staff to maybe… possibly… if they would take pity on me and let me leech a bit of electricity from the shop’s outlet.
Note: the machines did not let me join their private chat.
Refusing to leave this mall too without buying anything, luckily I could get a Pokemon toy from one of the rare Pokemon vending machines. I’ve seen similar geek merch vending machines around Akihabara, but this was by far the most hi-tech stuff.
I also grabbed a gacha capsule toy at the station before coming to the mall, but hey I’ve LITERALLY bought hundreds of those before, so I didn’t get carried away this time.
Verdict: Half-win / half-fail
WHINE and DINE
Living on vending machine grub is all fun and games at first, but then you find yourself with a growling stomach passing by restaurants. No amount of candy bars can quell the hunger for some proper food!
So many times I almost bought a bowl of ramen at the ticket machine in front of the small restaurant fronts, before I remembered the bowl will be served by human staff. Even in cheap eateries with automated ordering and payment and no waitstaff, you still need to give your ticket to the human staff at the counter and pick up the tray after your number is called. Minimal human interaction, yes, but human interaction nonetheless. Thinking of conveyor belt sushi got me hopeful for a second, as you order on a touchscreen and the plates come to you by little driving robots, but I remembered that human staff will seat you at the beginning and charge you at the end.
My only hope was a self-check out conbini or a supermarket, and Tokyo Teleport Station has the former. I grabbed a bunch of sandwiches and onigiri, scanned them and paid with my SUICA. Seamless. I had to act like the human staff didn’t exist, even though there were no other customers and they were free. Sorry, my cyborg leggings should have made it clear that I was there for the robots.
Verdict: Win, BUT the self-checkout does not let you buy some things like cigarettes and hot coffee. Also, in supermarkets the self-checkout cannot help you with items without a barcode like single vegetables.
I-RAWR-shaimase to the Robot Hotel
Not all robots were created equal. The ones working the reception desk at Hen na Hotel Maihama are robotic dinosaurs! The raptors wear little caps and growl politely in several languages.
I was confident this was going to be super easy. I had booked and paid everything online, I only needed to check in and get a room key. My reservation number ready, I tapped the display, but the machine asked for my passport instead. Luckily it let me choose “I live in Japan” as an alternative, and it took me to a screen where I had to enter my full name. Whew, crisis averted.
I typed in my name and the computer said NO. It did not recognize the name. Here’s where it makes you totally rage against the machine. Instead of giving me another try (maybe it was a typo, maybe it wants my name in katakana?) the system automatically called human staff without my consent. Crisis NOT averted at all. Crisis was my middle name!
I frantically tried to start everything from the beginning, while a confused human staff came out and tried talking to me. I broke down and just looked at him and shouted “NO, NO, NO!” like a broken robot myself, or like a raptor that learned a human word after eons of trying.
Remembering I am a human with manners, I told him I am doing a challenge and trying to check in without human help. He came back with a piece of paper of how the reservation system had registered my name. It wasn’t my name at all, it was the name of my companion. After putting that name in, the machine next to the desk spit out two plastic card keys and that was it.
I soon forgot my defeat after passing the T-Rex head roaring in the corner jungle, and then the aquarium with the robot fish. Going straight to my room to eat my conbini sandwich in peace and thinking I was done with this challenge, I was greeted by the final robot of the day—Robocon.
This cute robot concierge lights up as soon as you enter your room, welcoming you and firing off all the ways it can assist you. It was as if bots like Siri and Alexa had a small physical body. Robocon gives you check out time, breakfast hours, weather forecast, and if you don’t need anything, it will offer to sing and dance for you. It sang the ‘Shabondama’ for us and it is now permanently lodged in my consciousness.
Verdict: Dinosaur concierges were mostly a fail in my case, but in terms of just being cool, a million points to them! And Robocon was a total win.
Location: 5-3-20 Fujimi, Urayasu-shi, Chiba 279-0043 Japan
Map Link: https://goo.gl/maps/XHeJr9Evp8Gm1sC17
You Want More Robots?
There are more. Initially, in Odaiba, I wanted to enter the MIRAIKAN and see the humanoid robot Asimo sing a song, or talk through a robotic proxy exhibit. With the Pepper Parlor waiting lines being so long and the Miraikan’s early closing time, I simply couldn’t make it. Another hurdle for this challenge was that you have to buy tickets from the human staff in the ticket booth, as they are not available online.
For a more spiritual automation experience, there is a place that is something between the robot priest and the Henna hotel – Otera Stay. The lodgings are part of the over 400 years old Shiba Shoden-ji Temple, and you can check in and out without seeing a single soul. Of course, if you want you can interact with priests and book workshops. There’s also Q Stay Hostel where AI actually helps you make more human friends. The hostel’s lounge has an AI powered chat projected in their bar and anyone can log in and chat in any language while the AI automatically translates it.
If you’re wondering why Robot Restaurant Shinjuku was excluded from my itinerary, you probably would be surprised to hear that the place is not a restaurant, but an extravagant show with talented but human performers, sometimes riding on robotic carts.
Is Tokyo a City of Robots?
Granted, my robot day was full of fails, glitches and misunderstandings. All the robots are fixed, not autonomous, and in constant need of human oversight. Aside from that, the challenge went pretty well. Even with all these hiccups, Tokyo is still arguably the most automated city when compared to any other. You can tap away with your train pass and pay for transportation, buy drinks and conbini food, all while avoiding human interaction. Withdrawing money, currency exchange, powerbank renting, conbini photocopier – all automated. Shopping online and instructing deliveries to be left at the door means you don’t have to go out to a shopping center. If you are not craving better coffee and better food as much as my high maintenance palate, and merely go back and forth to work everyday, you could very well manage talking to exactly zero people.
Another thought hit me hard and unexpectedly. Even the human staff at big chains and convenience stores have a script drilled in them, so you are never really talking to them. Maybe it is a bigger challenge to have a machine-free and human-only service day in Tokyo?
But behind the glass and metal of vending machines, behind the plastic and wires of robots, even when you don’t see who made the food and who brought it to your table, you have fellow humans to thank. Humans make all things, even the things that go on to make things themselves.