This is not the cat-monster robot future I was promised.

It’s a problem that has been plaguing the industry for years now. The lucrative convenience store business has expanded to such a degree that the growth of stores is outpacing the available labor. Add in ongoing issues with wages and late hours, and you have all the ingredients for a full-blown labor crisis.

▼ When 7-Eleven builds a 7-Eleven in the parking lot of another 7-Eleven and post guards at the doors, you know something’s not quite right

So, as we’ve seen, the major chains have been flirting with technology to handle the duties once held by people. Cashier-free stores have been slowly emerging to iron out any kinks that may appear before mass adoption, and robots have been called in to do the stocking duty.

Last year we saw tests held by convenience chain Family Mart and robotics firm Telexistence in which a robot avatar called the Model-T was remotely piloted via VR to stock drinks. Perhaps most impressive part was that the robot looked pretty cool – like something from a Tim Burton movie.

Now, Family Mart and Telexistence have announced that the first such robot has been installed at a Family Mart on the premises of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Tokyo. It was put into active duty on 2 November in an unveiling attended by the press.

▼ News report on the new robot worker

Oh… I guess they decided against the cat-monster in the end. Instead, it appears Family Mart chose Telexistence’s very plain looking TXScara robot arm to do the stocking. As we can see in the video above, the arm automatically refills the display case by grabbing items from the stock shelves directly behind it and sliding them into the correct section.

The previous cool robot had a human to control it and monitor which drink went where through a VR interface. However, the TXScara can monitor and identify stock by itself with the aid of an AI named…sigh, Gordon.

▼ I guess “Gordon” sounds more exotic to Japanese ears.

Reaction online has also been lukewarm, with many pointing out what they see as flaws in the system.

“But you still need a person to stock the shelf that the robot is [taking the items from in order to stock the cooler].”
“It’s pretty slow. Seems like a person could do it way faster.”
“It’s actually amazing, but kind of slow too.”
“Are they going to make another robot to open the cardboard boxes and refill the back shelf?”
“I used to work at a convenience store and do this. It was actually a nice break to cool down in the summer.”
“In the end, it still takes a person to stock the back shelf.”

Ultimately many of those complaints seem superficial. Stocking the back shelf would only need to be done as a single job when deliveries arrive rather than constantly keeping up with sold inventory throughout the day. Also, there’s no need for the robot to move fast unless people were buying up drinks at an amazing speed, and it would take some kind of BTS canned coffee for that to happen.

Still, it can’t be denied that they completely sucked all the fun out of this endeavor by replacing the proposed nightmare-catbot with an AI named Gordon. Nevertheless, Family Mart reports that the move will be beneficial to the labor shortage as stocking takes up about 20 to 30 percent of a human employee’s workload.

Honestly though, that’s probably the kind of work I’d want to do at a Family Mart. The other day I saw a maniac arguing with the poor clerk there for at least five minutes about the price of a single 27 yen (US$0.24) Black Thunder. When they can make a robot that can handle that kind of crap then we’ll have true progress.

Source: NHK News Web, Family Mart, Hachima Kiko
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Insert image: Family Mart
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