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The future is now: AI aids foreign residents

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What do I have to do as a member of the chōkai (neighborhood association)? I’m expecting a baby. What do I need to do at city hall? Where can I use Wi-Fi services? I want to know how to use a fire extinguisher!

The roughly 20,000 foreign residents in Tokyo’s city of Minato have many such questions. Whether they have lived in Japan for a few months or decades, their questions are not always easy to answer. On top of this, residents usually want answers quickly instead of visiting a city hall. In some cases, they may not even know whom to ask.

Minato City Hall has created a solution. It has established a service for, basically, anybody to ask questions and have artificial intelligence answer right away in English and easy Japanese, depending on what users choose.

The city hall’s Global Community Planning Subsection began the service Jan. 8 on its Facebook account. Users and the AI, dubbed Guroonya and represented by a cute icon, chat using Facebook’s personal message function.

The Facebook account is accessible by searching “Minato Information Board” on Facebook or typing the URLs m.facebook.com/city.minato.mib for mobile phones, or facebook.com/city.minato.mib for PCs.

Guroonya is on an exponential learning curve. City officials are constantly feeding Guroonya information on daily life, public services and other topics. Another way to make the AI smarter is for it to receive as much questions and feedback as possible from users. That’s why the subsection urges foreign residents to interact with Guroonya.

“Guroonya is an AI, so please teach Guroonya. It may not be able to answer every question yet, but it will learn and be able to answer. It’s really up to you,” a subsection official said.

The city wants foreign residents to know what to do in the event of a disaster, what hospitals have multilingual services, how to properly dispose of waste and many other things. It is every municipality’s desire to reach out to foreign residents and make them feel connected.

Those who do not live in Minato City can also benefit from the service — city officials are teaching Guroonya how to answer not only Minato City-related questions, but general questions such as: What do children need to take to elementary school? What takes place at school entrance ceremonies? or What is a bento (hand-made lunch)?

“We want to find out the needs of foreign residents. Minato City is very advanced in offering multilingual services (on paper and websites), but some residents aren’t aware of these services. They use Facebook and we use an AI to analyze what they need,” said the official, explaining why the city began the service. “Ultimately, we want to implement foreign residents’ needs in our policies.”

The city official also said the English and easy Japanese that Guroonya uses should cover most of the 20,000 foreign residents in Minato City.

The level of Japanese is roughly at the level of regular third-grade students, or levels N3 or N4 of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test. The city’s estimate is that roughly 70 percent of the residents should understand that level of Japanese. “That, plus those who understand English and not much Japanese, should make Guroonya useful for most foreign residents in Minato City,” the official said.

Access will be possible via the following three methods:

* Search “Minato Information Board” on Facebook.

* Enter URL: m.facebook.com/city.minato.mi (mobile) or Enter URL: facebook.com/city.minato.mib (PC).

* Scan the QR code on the right.