The DAWN café in central Tokyo, Japan looks like any other modern service establishments in a bustling metropolis with its sleek architecture, open space and plenty of greenery. But there’s a catch. Instead of human staff, the floor is busy with robot staff who greet customers at the door; who help them find their seats and take their orders. The robot staff can even recommend different coffee beans that customers can choose from so that a robot barista can make the perfect coffee.
The DAWN café, however, is not a story about automation-where machines take over a human task. The cafe is operated by Ory Laboratory, a tech startup that builds the robot servers that are operated remotely by human pilots who can’t leave their houses, and who are in many cases, bedridden. According to government statistics, Japan has over 34 million people who are house-bound due to physical disability, mental illness or old age.
DAWN which stands for “Diverse Avatar Working Network” began as a social experiment to create inclusive hospitality jobs for those who are housebound. Over 60 participants control the robots through a mouse, ipad, or gaze-controlled remote from their homes, and can see and speak to the customers through the robot. The robots have a screen displaying a photo and introduction of the person operating the robot, which helps to enhance communications between the servers and customers. According to testimonials of participants, the opportunity to work and “to be needed by others is motivating.”
One billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population experience some form of disability, according to the World Health Population. With the increase of an aging workforce and rising rates of chronic illness, as well as an overall decline in mental health worldwide, a focus on disabilities of varying physical, sensory, and cognitive abilities is of growing importance for the workplace. With mounting evidence of the various challenges faced by working-age people with disabilities, there is increasing awareness of, and discussion about promoting disability inclusion in the workplace.
In regards to assistive technologies making work more accessible for those with disabilities, using robots is one of several examples. A 2021 study by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) on the landscape of assistive technologies reveals a sector which has moved beyond its mechanical engineering origins to now include enabling technologies such as AI, IoT, computer/machine interface (BCI/BMI) and advanced sensors. These technologies can augment mobility, cognition, vision, hearing and communications within the workplace.
Take the example of communications, which involves the use of multiple faculties that include speech, hearing, vision, motor abilities and cognition. According to the 2021 WIPO report, special software and services for assistive communication technologies had the highest number of patent filings between 1998-2019, especially in the area of emulation software which transforms the user interface of a device (including hardware input devices) into a customized software interface for easier interaction and accessibility for users. With the rise in software emulation, large consumer electronic goods companies in the mobile and computing industry such as Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Panasonic and Samsung are leading the way.
Disability rights have been fervently supported by Apple CEO Tim Cook who believes that Apple’s commitment to accessibility is so complete that it never looks at the return of investment, but considers it “just and right.” And on April 21, 2021, Microsoft announced their five-year commitment to accelerate accessible technology development, create opportunities for more people with disabilities to enter the workforce and to build a working culture that is more inclusive for people with disabilities This announcement comes on the back of 25 years of work on accessibility at Microsoft, first triggered as a response to the 1990 American Disabilities Act.
More recently, discussion is centering around disability inclusion in non-physical spaces, such as the metaverse, and what features are necessary to ensure that it is accessible and inclusive.
Technologies, however, are only one component to address disability inclusion in the workplace. Many people point to the importance of developing a more inclusive corporate culture starting with developing recruitment and retention policies for disabled employees, implementation of training and awareness of disabilities in the workplace, and reframing accessibility as a topic that concerns everybody.