Theme 7
SDGs and Sumitomo: New Work Styles

 One-point explanation
The rapid changes in work styles brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic are highlighting the central importance of Goal 8 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), “Decent work and economic growth.” Clearly, among the various types of non-financial capital underpinning corporate sustainability, human capital is especially important. All the indications are that the population of Japan will continue to decline and labor shortages will pose an increasingly acute issue for society. In these circumstances, companies’ success in securing human capital hinges to a large extent on their ability to offer job satisfaction and ensure the sustainability of their businesses. “Decent work,” a key element of Goal 8 of the SDGs, appears in “Target 8.5: By 2030, achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value.” When we consider the nature of decent work, AI evidently has a crucial role to play in reducing the physical burden of work while enhancing productivity.
In this context, the Japan Research Institute’s autonomous multifunctional robot, which serves as a farmer’s right-hand man, and SCSK’s AI-based service, which automatically responds to customers’ questions, are expected to contribute to the attainment of decent work for everyone. Goal 8 of the SDGs is related to pressing social issues, such as climate change globally and population decline in Japan, as well as the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Services spurring progress toward accomplishment of Goal 8 are also business opportunities with great potential.

Koichi Kozuka
Director, SDGs Design Center
Nikkei BP Consulting

Japan Research Institute

Autonomous multifunctional robot is farmer’s right-hand man

The prototype featuring autonomous operation, automatic tracking, monitoring and control functions, along with visual and other measurement sensors, a camera, and communication capabilities.

Agriculture in Japan faces grave challenges due to the shrinking population working in the agricultural sector and gradual abandonment of farmland. The Japan Research Institute (JRI) is seeking ways to transform these challenges into opportunities to make farming a high-value-added, profitable business sector.

Called “DONKEY,” JRI’s autonomous multifunctional robot is designed to support farmers in labor-intensive tasks such as harvesting, transportation and weeding. JRI engaged in joint research with Keio University on this robot. In November 2017, JRI established a development consortium with Keio University, various companies in the equipment manufacturing, finance and trading sectors, and the town of Motegi in Tochigi Prefecture, where the mountainous terrain makes farming particularly challenging.

Proof of concept performed in a field in Motegi, Tochigi Prefecture. DONKEY autonomously tracks a person walking at normal pace and assists with farming tasks. Like its namesake, it is a true beast of burden.

The agricultural robots already in use tend to be costly yet offer limited functionality. A robot specialized to harvest a certain crop goes into barn storage once the harvest is finished, making it an expensive outlay for farmers cultivating several different crops.

In terms of its concept, DONKEY, consisting of a base module plus various interchangeable attachments, emphasizes multifunctionality. DONKEY can handle a range of tasks, including weeding, sowing, transporting or harvesting various crops; countermeasures to protect crops from wildlife; and preparing or managing soil. Its design means it can be used for a much greater portion of the year, increasing the cost benefit. DONKEY is designed to be the farmer’s right-hand man.

If, as envisaged, not only local farmers but also local workshops, small and medium-sized enterprises, students and other players become involved in the development and fabrication of attachments and expansion modules for DONKEY, the multifunctional robot is expected to spur regional revitalization extending beyond the agricultural sector.

A further benefit of the robot is that it collects farming data, which could enable farmers eventually to make more accurate harvest predictions and raise productivity while also facilitating the transfer of know-how to the next generation.

The development consortium finished its work at the end of March 2018. Field-testing started in Motegi in April 2018 and DONKEY has been further improved, reflecting feedback from farmers.

In view of its potential, DONKEY is an opportunity for JRI to address various social issues and be involved in the revitalization of Japan.

The base module has a footprint about 60cm x 40cm. Ideal for working in small fields, DONKEY comes with various attachments for tasks such as weeding, transporting or harvesting. Its multifunctionality is a big advantage for farmers producing a variety of crops in small quantities.

SCSK Corporation

AI automatically responds to customers’ questions

SCSK’s AI-based conversational agent Desse is attracting attention for use in help desk and other customer support operations.

Help desk operations and other customer support services to respond to questions from customers are essential for companies, but human resources for these activities are limited. In many cases, customers do not consult the online FAQs and related answers.

SCSK has developed an AI-based conversational agent called Desse to help address this issue. The system places a character on the company’s website to give automatic answers to questions from customers. Through real-time text-based conversation, Desse can interact with customers to solve issues by engaging in online chat.

A defining characteristic of Desse is that it comprehends natural conversational language, and is equipped with a knowledge database to generate highly relevant answers automatically depending on question content. The technology is an extension of machine translation for automatic translation of text, a field in which SCSK has been conducting research for many years, and is highly reliable.

Numerous companies are already using Desse. It is proving its utility in terms of reducing the need for call center operations, which require deployment of human resources. Introducing Desse allows companies to give customers a greater opportunity to solve the issue without having to phone the call center, which in turn helps reduce the volume of calls. Some clients have reported reductions of almost 50% in customer support call volumes.

Ease of use is another advantage of Desse. For instance, adding assumed Q&A patterns to increase the accuracy of responses would require programming knowledge with conventional approaches. With Desse, all you need to do is enter Q&A text on a spreadsheet software worksheet and upload the relevant file to the server.

A further benefit of Desse is the ability of its Q&A engine to support multiple languages, reflecting its roots in machine translation technology. Desse currently supports seven languages: Japanese, English, Chinese (three languages), Korean, and Thai. Marketing and promotional applications are another possibility via efficient collection of Q&A-generated customer data.

Entrusting some operations to a machine enables the redeployment of freed up human resources to other areas. With its ease of system installation, Desse shows companies one way in which AI could be used in the future.

Equipped with SCSK’s proprietary Q&A engine*, Desse comprehends natural conversational language in text queries from customers. It can cope with synonyms or idioms and can tell the difference between expressions. It automatically selects the most relevant answer from its knowledge database.
*Proprietary semantic similarity computation (Japanese Patent No. 6789426)