TOKYO—An unusual employee started last week at the upscale Mitsukoshi department store here. Her name is Aiko Chihira and she hails from Kawasaki, Japan, just south of the city. This temp is a tireless worker and gives an excellent, detailed spiel about the 12-story flagship store and its upcoming events. But even by her bosses' admission, she is not a very good listener. In fact, although she speaks fluent Japanese—and even can do Japanese sign language—questions from customers fall on deaf ears. Rather, on expertly sculpted earlike features.

Chihira is a life-size, lifelike but nonconversational humanoid robot, stationed at the store through May 5. She currently chirps out information only in Japanese but she also can speak—and sing—in other languages. This Toshiba creation made her public debut at CEATEC Japan in late 2014 but her appearance at the Mitsukoshi marks her first direct "work" with customers.

Robots laboring alongside people are not exactly new. They have been a part of the manufacturing world for decades but usually in a much less human form. Only recently have they donned such realistic appearances—and performed in the more personal world of customer service.

A week before Chihira arrived for her post at Mitsukoshi a smaller bot started working full time at the Bank of Tokyo–Mitsubishi UFJ's headquarters. “Nao” looks more like a friendly cartoon character than a faux human. Made by Aldebaran Robotics, the toddler-height Nao can understand and answer customer questions in Japanese, Chinese and English. It can even recognize human facial expressions, The Wall Street Journal reported. This summer a larger robot from Aldebaran named Pepper is set to start at Japan's Mizuho Bank. Priced around $2,000, Pepper has been created with the goal of getting the robot into people's homes as well as storefronts.

Credit: Aldebaran

 

What distinguishes Chihira from her fellow service bots, however—aside from her lack of interpersonal skills—is her humanlike appearance. Dressed in a kimono and traditional Japanese sandals, she was created to resemble a generic Japanese woman in her 30s. The detail on her face and hands is impeccable. From a distance one might possibly mistake her for human. As soon as she starts to move, however, she is quickly recognizable as machine. Even among the upscale store's exceedingly formal and well-trained staff, her few dozen motors render her movements distinctly mechanical. Her head and torso pivot right and left (she can also bow) and her arms seem to glide on defined planes. It certainly seems a long way off before this pleasant, fleshed-out C-3PO will be mistaken for a live human in action or perhaps even enter the uncanny valley.

After a brief stint near the historic store's main entrance Chihira was moved to a showcase on the seventh floor to chatter up there. On a Thursday evening, three day's after the robot's arrival at the store, a few curious shoppers—or perhaps robot-chasers—paused for a few minutes to observe Chihira doing her thing. Most seemed quietly interested and impressed by her lifelike features and the attention to detail, such as coloring and the fine, natural, skinlike lines on her hands.

Credit: Katherine Harmon Courage

 

But in this bustling, tech-heavy city none seemed terribly shocked or concerned. Chihira is not yet poised to take over the jobs of the bio-units around her. On the contrary, Chihira and her like are still job creators for human programmers, engineers, designers and in-person minders. And from the looks of it, these humans still have a lot of work ahead of them.