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Two years before the Olympics, Tokyo raises its game

From drones to talking robots, the city undergoes a sweeping transformation

Media members are given a tour of the construction site of the New National Stadium, the main stadium of Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, on July 18.

TOKYO -- In almost exactly two years, the Summer Olympics will kick off in Tokyo. The last time the games were held in the Japanese capital in 1964 was an opportunity for the country to modernize infrastructure such as highways and bullet trains. This time, the focus is on improving softer aspects of the economy, such as productivity and diversity.

The direct impact on the economy from major construction projects is expected to be around 2 trillion yen ($18 billion), according to Mizuho Research Institute. But the overall impact, including expanded investment, the adoption of multilingual services and the hosting of international conferences, could balloon to 28 trillion yen. The event will also expose the Japanese people to social changes and diversity in a way that could be a priceless legacy for the country's future.

The Olympics will likely drive developments in robotic and artificial intelligence technologies, lifting the tourism and health care sectors and making Tokyo a more diverse metropolis.

One example of the developments afoot comes from the Japanese security services company Secom. At the 2020 Games it plans to introduce new security techniques in which human guards act as "walking cameras," equipped with smartphones in their shirt pockets. Video data taken by the smartphone cameras will be immediately sent to a control center and analyzed using AI. Expectations are high that this approach will be able to identify unusual patterns that would otherwise escape human recognition.

"We are determined to protect the Olympic Games perfectly, and create a new legacy in the security sector," said Secom President Yasuo Nakayama.

Demand for workers in security services is exceptionally high. While the overall job openings-to-applicants ratio was 1.60 in May, for security services, it was 6.75. To ease the labor crunch, worker productivity needs to improve dramatically.

Sohgo Security Services, also known as Alsok, is working to commercialize drone-based surveillance technology as early as 2019. This should reduce the workload of human guards at the Olympics. Drones will fly at an altitude of 50 to 70 meters and monitor an area with a radius of 3 km. The flying machines will be connected to a ground base by a cable for power and data transmission, and will be able to fly for up to eight hours continuously.

The main stadium of the 2020 Olympics under construction in central Tokyo.

The government has set a target of attracting 40 million overseas tourists in 2020, compared with just under 30 million last year. Introducing greater conveniences for foreigners should help facilitate a more diverse society.

From last November through February, the Tokyo government carried out a trial run of a robot translator at its offices in collaboration with the IT equipment and services company Fujitsu.

"Where is the rest room?" a visitor asked the robot at a reception desk in English. The robot explained how to get to the nearest one in the same language. Fujitsu's voice recognition and machine translation technology comes in 19 languages. The team is working to improve the precision of its voice recognition by the 2020 Games.

In July, taxi operator Nihon Kotsu Group began selling tablet devices with payment functions to other taxi companies across the county. The system, available in English, Chinese and Korean, uses the Alipay smartphone payment platform of China's Alibaba Group Holding, as well as QR codes and other payment methods in addition to credit cards and electric money such as Suica prepaid cards.

Meanwhile, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is looking for ways to relieve commuter congestion. In early July, it began a monthlong campaign to encourage workers to commute at different times to ease the capital's frenzied rush hour. This "Jisa Biz" campaign -- based on the Japanese word for "time difference" -- involves some 800 companies. It is a virtual trial run for the 2020 Games, when cooperation between train operators, businesses and workers will be essential to reducing human traffic to make way for the Olympic visitors.

At Nippon Telegraph and Telephone East, one of the country's major telecommunications companies, all 30,000 workers are allowed to commute at flexible times during the three-month period through September. The limit on number of teleworking days has been removed.

In Tokyo's Toshima Ward, the local government offices last year began allowing workers to choose their working hours each month from five different slots. During the Jisa Biz campaign, workers can change their working hours daily depending on personal needs.

Last summer the Jisa Biz campaign contributed to a decrease in Tokyo passenger traffic between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. by an average of 2.3% at major train stations in central Tokyo. Reducing the mental and physical stress of commuting is widely understood to improve concentration and efficiency at work.

In 2016, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Japan 20th of 35 countries in terms of hourly labor productivity. The government hopes workplace reforms such as flexible hours, teleworking and other steps for a better work-life balance will improve this.

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