Dawn of the Robot Recruiter

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“A pretty mechanical toy”—Lord (Herbert) Kitchener, British Secretary of State for War, assessing the newly introduced World War I weapon, the tank

“It seems to me that the Japanese society (government) is preferring the robot-option to others, since the government is not making major reforms to increase children and immigrants”Shinji Yamashige, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Economics & School of International and Public Policy, Hitotsubashi University in “Declining Population and Fiscal Sustainability in Japan”


Robots are going to make or break the recruiting industry. Not today. Not tomorrow.

But not never.

Not only has the age of the robot arrived, it arrived years ago—at least for me and viscerally, on the morning in 2002 when I opened a copy of Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper and saw  a jaw-dropping, yet somehow engaging full-page full-color photo ad featuring a Canadian family of four plus dog standing in front of their modest suburban home, smiling with their gleaming helmeted and faceless creamy-white human-sized Honda Corporation robot, ASIMO, by their side.

Nah. A gimmick, a toy, a novelty, you say. Too expensive, too dumb, too clumsy, too Hollywood….too few to worry about, you think. “My job is safe; my family is safe,” you wish. No human-hunting, flesh-eating, job-stealing robots in your future or in your place at work or at home, you may suppose, taking precarious comfort in the rapidly obsolescing notion that robots can perform only the “4D” jobs–the dangerous, the dirty, the dumb and the dull.

The Robot Choo-Choo That May Chew-Chew You and Your Job

But to suppose this is to suppose wrong, for they already exist, in the thousands or in the millions, depending on whether robotic toys and robo-carpet cleaners are included in the tally—and not only in labs or warehouses, but also in family homes, nursing homes, factories, restaurants, cribs, battlefields and farms. Your office and your job may eventually be no exception, if/when robots come to replace the comparatively primitive automated telephone interviewing systems that now exist, and relegate them—and maybe you—to the dustbin of technology’s history.

About ten years ago—techno-eons, given the pace of technological and specifically robotics innovation, a University of Florida team created the world’s first gastrobot, a train dubbed the “Chew-Chew” (that’s the official name) that ran on hand-fed sugar cubes (http://www.eng.usf.edu/~wilkinso/gastrobotics/index_files/page0001.htm). That was ten years ago. Now, more sophisticated and fully autonomous “fire-and-forget” robots that are designed to extract energy recharges from life forms are being developed.

There is also the U.S. Air Force-contracted “inverse capped helix winglet” (abbreviated to “i-CHeW”—really) that lands on and feeds off power lines to recharge and resume indefinite surveillance. Then there are the more—at least initially—benign Japanese robot receptionists, robot caregivers, robot fashion models, robot housekeepers and even robot sushi waiters—all already deployed and in service in businesses, homes and restaurants.

The robots are here, and those that aren’t are coming soon.

Need proof? Check these out and wake up:

  • ASIMO, Honda: ASIMO (pronounced “ashi mo”, which suggestively means “also feet” in Japanese) can, in addition to dance, run, kick a ball, shake hands, climb and balance on one leg, recognize up to 10 faces and discriminate many sounds, including random noises (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmabKC1P51A) 100 of these are operational, at a cost of $2 million each.
  • Robot “Transformer”: The Hollywood movie “Transformers” is history. The future is robots like OmniZero.9, standing 1.2 m tall and weighing 25 kg, which at $2 million each, can walk, transform into a car and into a wheelchair. (http://www.gametrailers.com/user-movie/omnizero-9-transforming-robot/331331)
  • Robot EATR/eater: the “EATR” ™–an Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot, a “gastrobot” weaponized system being developed under the wing of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is designed to forage for food and operate completely autonomously, if not ominously. The developers characterize it as “strictly vegetarian”—for now or for as long as they can control it. (http://www.robotictechnologyinc.com/images/upload/file/Presentation%20EATR%20Brief%20Overview%2013%20June%2010.pdf)
  • Robot waiter, Japan: Fully operational and on the ex-human job, this waiter is basically a tray with legs that wheels food to a designated table [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYQR_pFKQFM]
  • Robot violinist, Toyota: In this video the humanoid robot “expressively” plays the classic graduation standard, “Pomp and Circumstance” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzjkBwZtxp4)
  • Robot bicyclist, Murata Boy: Not only does this robot ride a bike, but does it better than we ever could. It apparently has gyroscopes that allow it to perch vertically, like a fly, on a motionless bike, atop a balance beam [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4rgaLW163k&NR=1&feature=fvwp]
  • Swarm robots, UK: Research into creating swarms of robots that  can assemble and reassemble themselves into new colonial forms is advancing at centers such as Bristol University. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkvpEfAPXn4)
  • Robot therapist: Equipped with visual and other sensors, Paro, a cuddly robotic seal, is used in hospitals and nursing homes in Japan and overseas, as a therapeutic,  comforting companion. The sale price: around US$5,000. (http://web-japan.org/trends/09_sci-tech/sci090917.html)
  • Robot shopping assistant: Designed for the elderly, Robovie-II is an in-store stationed prototype that detects a coded shopping list a customer creates at home, guides the shopper through the aisles and reminds the shopper about items on the list. (http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2009-12/robovie-ii-robot-helps-you-shop)
  • Robot chef: Operational and assisting humans to make sushi, okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes), or ramen noodles. One model, the Motoman SDA-10, standing 1.4 m tall and weighing about 220 kg, can communicate with customers and even adapt their cooking methods in line with diners’ requests. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6Q1r0u_5bI&playnext=1&list=PL798D166475683BDA)
  • Rice-Planting Robot: winner of the 2008 Robot Awards grand prize awarded by MITI, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, this robot can plant and tend rice with no human intervention, at a cost of around US$90,000 and projected market debut estimated as the year 2018.(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18F6DccAbSk

Prepare for “Made in Japan” Robots in Your Office

Besides their variety, their sophistication and their penetration into daily life, these robots are, for the most part, conspicuous for one more thing: Most on this list, apart from the U.S. military robots and UK projects, are “Made in Japan”, which has 10 times as many industrial robots as the U.S, with approximately 300 per 10,000 manufacturing workers. That, in and of itself, may not mean much to you, since so much stuff is (still) made in Japan (despite the rise of China).

What is highly significant, however, is the possibility that, Japan, already this planet’s robotics center—currently accounting for half of the world’s total, is going to be manufacturing a lot more robots—not only for Japan but for the rest of the world, if Johns Hopkins Ph.D., Shinji Yamashige’s hunch, quoted above, and one of my own are correct.

Desperation as the Mother of Robotic Invention and Marketing

First among the factors that he cites for expecting that robot numbers will only increase is that Japan’s population is aging (a result of fewer marriages and babies). A second is that it is unlikely that Japan will ever become the kind of cultural melting pot that the United States and Canada are. Japan’s foreign-born population, at less than 1% is dwarfed by that of the biggest melting pot of all, Australia, well above 20% and small compared to the U.S. rate of around 10% (Yamashige’s data, in the cited report). Cultural, linguistic and genetic homogeneity have not only been the hallmarks of Japanese society, but perhaps also its most revered fact.

As for cloning to make up the labor, social security, health program, debt servicing and GDP shortfalls, it is hard to say whether Japan will go that route. On the one hand, it would preserve the treasured homogeneity of Japan; on the other, it’s not clear that the Japanese are any less reluctant to have mass cloning than anyone else is. In an interview I conducted with the highest-ranking executives at genetic engineering giant Genzyme, Tokyo in 1999, the group was unanimously and surprisingly opposed to the idea and aghast at the suggestion Japan would even consider cloning.

Assuming cloning is ruled out, my hunch is that robot numbers will increase and increase dramatically, because there is yet another huge incentive for Japan to re-invigorate its recession-hit robotics industry: to generate what will be desperately needed export revenues to fuel services and buy resources and goods that Japanese domestic (in both senses of “domestic”) robots won’t be able to provide.

So my hunch is that very aggressive Japanese marketing of its robots is in the offing—perhaps especially of its humanoid companions and servants like Paro and the still pricey ASIMO,  a gyndroid version of which may be ideal for the 20 million Chinese males who will be unable to find wives, because of China’s 1-child-policy/female abortion-induced gender imbalance.

The Two Robot Recruiters in Your Office

What this all means for you, a 21st-century recruiter, is that you shouldn’t be surprised if, one day, and sooner rather than much later, two kinds of robots show up at your desk.

The first kind will be there to replace and then, if you are lucky, maybe interview you for your next job. But, don’t despair. There is a chance, however slim, that the second kind will show up first….

….the kind to be interviewed and recruited by you, for some other human’s job.

Read more in Workplace Technology

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).