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SoftBank uses smart robots to tackle Japan's labor shortage

New AI-controlled cleaning machines will be introduced in the summer of 2018

Brain Corporation of the U.S. shows off its ICE RS26 autonomous cleaning robot in Tokyo on Nov. 20. The company is providing its AI technology to SoftBank Robotics. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- With a growing economy and aging population, Japan is suffering from a worsening labor shortage. The jobs-to-applicants ratio for September was 1.52 on a seasonally adjusted basis, the highest since 1974. There may be no immediate cure for the situation, but SoftBank is ready to provide some clues through its robotics business.

SoftBank Robotics, the conglomerate's robotics arm, released service updates for its humanoid Pepper, and also introduced a new floor cleaner controlled by artificial intelligence. The company hopes to start selling the cleaner in the summer next year.

The new autonomous cleaning machine represents SoftBank Robotics' answer to the labor shortage.

When the company started selling Pepper in October 2015, the robot's main appeal was simply being unique. But after observing Peppers in action since then at over 2,000 companies, the company thinks that Peppers can do more.

SoftBank Group's humanoid robot Pepper demonstrates its new self-payment system in Tokyo on Nov. 20. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

On November 30, SoftBank Robotics will begin endowing Pepper with new skills. Working with Microsoft Japan, the company is utilizing big data to come up with the new skill set, allowing Pepper to handle certain tasks, such as those performed by hotel receptionists and pavilion guides.

Pepper now provides home care and education in locales that that are too difficult for doctors or teachers to visit on a frequent basis.

The new AI-controlled cleaning machine is intended to resolve the shortage of janitors. The AI technology will be provided by U.S.-based Brain Corporation, with other parts manufactured by Chinese maker ICE.

SoftBank Robotics will be the distributor. Brain's AI helps machines safely and efficiently clean the floors of large commercial facilities.

Fumihide Tomizawa, president and CEO of SoftBank Robotics, told The Nikkei that he aims to sell tens of thousands of Peppers worldwide in 5 years.

Despite the company's huge ambitions, the feasibility of actually achieving its business goals is questionable. When Tomizawa was asked when the business would turn a profit, he only answered "sooner than you may think."

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