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What in the World: In the Land of the Robot, Androids Are on the March


This Robot Is Greeting Tourists in Japan

Chihira Junco is one of four such androids that have been created so far. The company that developed the technology plans to make 1,000 more in 2017.

By Neeti Upadhye and KO SASAKI on Publish Date September 2, 2016. Photo by Ko Sasaki for The New York Times. Watch in Times Video »

Meet Chihira Junco, a tourist greeter at a shopping mall in Tokyo. In her crisp blue button-down shirt, white blazer and pinstripe skirt, she stands in sensible pumps behind a counter in Aqua City Odaiba on Tokyo Bay, dispensing directions to local sites and shops in Japanese, Chinese and English.

She is not, however, human. Ms. Junco — if you can use an honorific for a machine — joins an incipient group of androids springing up around Japan. There are also Yumeko, a receptionist at the Hen-na Hotel, a robot-operated boutique in Nagasaki, and Matsukoloid, who appears in a popular television variety show with her human doppelgänger, Matsuko Deluxe.

Toshiba, the electronics company, developed Chihira Junco in collaboration with technology labs at several Japanese universities. She and four other androids cost ¥10 million (about $ 93,000) to produce, but only Ms. Junco — Chihira? — is currently out in public, while the others remain with their maker. The company said it planned to develop 1,000 more androids in 2017. By 2020, it hopes to make 10,000 a year.

At Aqua City, which is popular with tourists and where a small replica of the Statue of Liberty stands in a park near the mall entrance, visitors can tap on a screen to ask Chihira questions like “Where are you from?” (“I was born in Mizuho-machi, Nishitama-gun in Tokyo. I now live alone in the Minato ward”) and “What’s your favorite food?” (“I especially like watermelons and Japanese pears”).

Up close, Chihara’s robotic arm movements give her away, as do her eyes, which blink only halfway. When she “talks,” she looks more like someone chewing gum than speaking. During a recent rendition of “My Heart Will Go On,” from the movie “Titanic,” her mouth barely moved and her gestures suggested a crossing guard directing traffic.

For those visitors who still long for genuine human contact, two actual human greeters stand at an information counter about 20 feet away.

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