The Robot Trifecta: One Solution for Three of Japan’s Biggest Problems
“(The Council will) work out a strategy for using robots as the key means to solve labor shortages amid the declining birthrate and aging population, low productivity of the services sector and other challenges plaguing Japan…”—Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s directive (at the Robot Revolution Realization Council inaugural meeting, September 2014)
No Clones, Please—We’re Japanese!
In a 1998 Tokyo interview with some of the top brass and PR staff in Genzyme Japan‘s head office, I asked the group whether they believed that Japan would meet the twin challenges of an aging and shrinking population and workforce by turning to immigration, cloning, robots or, instead, the venerable standby—more babies. (A third problem discussed below, chronic stagnation of the Japanese economy, was on my mind, but not on the agenda that day.)
At the time, I was Editor-in-chief of Business Insight Japan Magazine and was working on an article about Japan biotechnology. When I tossed out that question and solution set, the group was uniformly aghast at the suggestion Japan would ever resort to cloning (which, when you think about it, is kind of ironic or at least unexpected, given the degree of gusto and comfort the Japanese have traditionally exhibited with their cultural and racial homogeneity—not to mention the fact that Genzyme was, at that early date, already an established pioneer in therapeutic bioengineering.)
As for robot and immigrant replacements for their citizenry, the group was less than enthusiastic, but seemed to give a half-nod to immigration (which I explored in my article “Repopulating Japan’s Workforce: Through Increased Immigration?“), if a baby-boom could not be engineered (e.g., through government exhortations, tax breaks, better daycare and other incentives).
Putting My Money on the Bots
My own prediction, which I voiced at the time, was that the robots were definitely on the table, even if then not yet fully designed and assembled on it. I also predicted that the bots would give the Japanese economy, which has since languished in the gloomy vales of stagnation, a huge boost in both its domestic and foreign markets.
In particular and at that time (but not in the interview), I predicted that the world would glom onto the array of service, industrial, pet and eventual spouse/playmate “koibito”—”lover”—bots (or “koibots”, as I call them, especially for all the nerdy “herbivore” app-addicted jJapanese guys too terrified of or just uninterested in women in the flesh). In fact, I am so confident that this will come to pass that I’ve registered “www.koiboto.com” and will wait for Honda’s bid. Really. (Remember the Styx 1983 song “Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto“? Oh, forget www.koibot.com–it’s taken, by a design company.)
Big Bot Moves in Japan
Now here we are, sixteen years later, and my prediction has stood the test of time—in my own mind and in the latest news stories emanating from the Land of the Rising Bots. A December 13, 2014 Drudge Report headline that caught my eye, “Japan Bets Revival on Humanoids”, linked to a SFGate article titled “Why Japan Has Bet Its Revival on Humanoid Robots”. The author, David R. Baker, says,
“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calls robots a ‘pillar’ of his efforts to revive Japan’s stalled economy and deal with the country’s shrinking, aging population. And he’s not just talking about industrial robots like the ones that powered Japan’s rise to auto-manufacturing dominance in the 1980s. “
Abe, speaking at the September 2014 inaugural convening of the Robot Revolution Realization Council (which he created), is quoted (in the SFGate article) as saying,
“The adoption of robots tailored to the individual needs of each workplace is without a doubt a major trump card that will drive our local economies.”
Robohub.org quotes him (in translation) as saying, the plan is to “make robots a key pillar of our growth strategy to make Japan competitive again.” In dollar-denominated terms, the intent is to triple the Japanese robotics market to $22 billion by 2020. The council’s mission, as framed by Abe is to
“…work out a strategy for using robots as the key means to solve labor shortages amid the declining birthrate and aging population, low productivity of the services sector and other challenges plaguing Japan and for developing the robot industry into a growth sector to explore global markets.”
Speaking of bets, I’m willing to bet that “explore” is code for “compete in and once again dominate”–especially in light of the daunting competition from and exploding market in China, where sales grew 32-fold over the last decade to surpass Japan as the biggest robot market in 2013—with plans to manufacture 1/3rd of the robots it will need by 2015.
That’s what I’m calling the Japanese “Robotics Trifecta”: solving the problems and meeting the challenges of an aging population, worker shortages and economic revival/survival. Putting their money and policies on the same robot table, the Japanese government is behind a push toward deregulation and standardization of norms to help (gr)ease the path into global markets. Disappointed that their home teams were, because of regulations, lagging in competition with the da Vinci robotic brain surgery units, the Japanese are retooling for that battle:
” …now the new NEDO [New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization) has recruited Kawasaki and Panasonic to make a rival to the da Vinci that could perform more intricate tasks including brain surgery. The new surgical robot thrust is a $42 million part of the overall $138 million framework. Part of that framework is regulatory reforms so that new robotic surgical devices will have an easier time with regulators and meet their goal of having rival products in clinical trials by 2019.”
So, I think it’s fair to say that anybody who thinks that Japan isn’t serious about winning the robot trifecta of aging, workforce and economic growth races against time and other nations needs to have his brain examined by a da Vinci device or to stick to betting on horses.
Until the Japanese build a faster robo-horse.