Japanese Robots: A Revolution in Progress

When it comes to defining what a robot is, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori prefers to use the analogy of Mt. Fuji. “If a steep hill suddenly protrudes from the flatland, you can draw a line to show where the mountain starts,” he says, “but Mt. Fuji becomes higher so gradually that you can’t draw a line.” This is a similar problem one has when defining a robot. Is a robot the automatic dishwasher at the base of Mt. Fuji, or is it the first humanoid to scale Mt. Fuji?

While we can argue about exact definitions, one thing is clear: the Japanese Robot ASIMO is without a doubt the most advanced humanoid robot we have yet invented. ASIMO has redefined the way we look at robots. A humanoid robot is a robot designed to look like a human and carry out human tasks. The name ASIMO is an acronym that stands for Advanced Step in Innovative MObility. It was developed by Honda to be capable of assisting humans in everyday tasks. Designed with 34 degrees of freedom, it is capable of turning on light switches, opening doors, carrying objects, and pushing carts. It can also walk on its own across uneven surfaces and up stairs. Currently, it is the only humanoid robot capable of running, with a top speed of 3.7 miles per hour. Robots like ASIMO demonstrate just how far we have come in robotics, especially in terms of Japanese technology. Developments like this extend our perception of the applications robots can have on our everyday lives.

The benefits of incorporating robots like ASIMO into everyday life are most evident in Japan. With a rapidly declining population, Japan has a serious issue with an increasing number of retirees paired with a proportionally small younger generation. This is leading to a declining workforce where there are less capable bodies to perform necessary tasks to keep Japan’s economy running while caring for the elderly. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe believes that “the adoption of robots tailored to the individual needs of each workplace is without a doubt a major trump card that will drive our [Japan’s] local economies.” The robots being developed today are on the verge of taking over in many areas of industry and healthcare. ASIMO, for example, will be increasingly able to tend to the needs of senior citizens.

Japan has not always been a leader in robotics. The country and robotics started their relationship because they did not have the natural resources to compete in the global economy, which pushed them in another direction. They made the decision to focus on technology and have since been a world leader in the field. Instead of being rich in natural resources, they became rich in “technological resources.” It began with the growth of their chemical and petrochemical industries in the 1960s due to the high demand of industrial chemicals. Then, in 1980s, they started importing raw materials such as iron ore and coal and refined them into high-tech manufactured goods for export. This was a key turning point for Japan’s economy, and it set them on the course that brought them to where they are today.

Japan also entered into a trade pact with the United States in 1986 that helped grow its semiconductor industry. Originally, America was the world leader in semiconductor manufacturing. However, as Japan’s technological capacity increased, they started taking over much of the world exports that America had previously been in control of. America decided to create an agreement with Japan that would limit Japan’s exports of semiconductors, thinking that this would strengthen the U.S. exports of semiconductors again. While it was meant to help America and keep Japan in check, it backfired and ended up benefiting Japan in the long run. The pact eventually led Japan’s chip manufacturers to become more efficient and profitable; as a result, they became world leaders in the industry. This opened up a whole new world of possibilities for developing electronics and robots.

Robots, with their ever-increasing capabilities, are going to have a major impact on our everyday lives very soon. The more advanced the technology gets, the more incorporated it becomes. Eventually, we will be joking around about how we used to have to take out the trash by hand, or how we actually had to clean our rooms ourselves with no assistance from a robot. This future is not as far off as most think. It is a natural trend that humans are gravitating toward, not only out of fascination, but out of necessity. Japan is a perfect example of this transition. The country’s adoption of robots in its society will help solve their national crisis of an attenuating population. Robots will be crucial for maintaining a healthy economy and high standard of living for all ages of the population.

With all this in mind, Japanese youth are having to decide whether to remain in the workplace or take care of the elderly. An economy cannot continue to grow when workplace demands are not being met. Japan’s median age is currently 46 years old and is projected to be 50 by 2025. The percentage of the population that is over 65 has increased from 11.6% in 1989 to 20% in 2006, and it will likely reach 38% by 2055. To put this problem into perspective, in the late 20th century, it took Japan just 17 years to double its population of people 65 years old and older. In comparison, France took 115 years to go from 7% to 14% for that same demographic. When 20% of a country’s population is 65 or older, that country is defined as a “super-aged” culture. While certain people over 65 can work and contribute to a country’s economy, the majority in this age bracket need to be taken care of. 13.2% of Japan’s current population is made up of 0-14 year olds, and 25.8% are 65 and older. This means that a total of 39% of Japan’s population isn’t officially working. These previously stated numbers highlight an ineluctable reality: Japan’s population is aging fast and not being replenished quickly enough to sustain a healthy economy through traditional means, especially given that working-age people are having to spend their time caring for this portion of the population.

Japan’s aging population and shrinking workforce has led to a decline in the production of goods, thus damaging the country’s economic health, and this crisis is expected to get worse in the near future. For instance, for every 100 people in Japan, about 40 people are dependent on the other 60. This means more Japanese businesses might need to start vigorously outsourcing their industries overseas in order to compensate for the smaller workforce. The same businesses will also need to rethink pension plans. Japan has a reputation for higher-than-average savings rates and hefty pensions, but Japanese corporations will not be possible to continue to pay the retired population when production is decreasing. This in turn will put a large burden on the working class to support the growing retired population; consequently, Japan’s economic deterioration might accelerate.

One possible solution would be to open up immigration and allow young foreigners to enter the workplace. With a graying populace and declining birthrate, Japan could look outside to revive its workforce. While manufacturing jobs were abundant in the 1980s, they have shrunk since then, with many of those jobs replaced by elder-care service industry positions. With an influx of young immigrant workers, Japan could potentially revive their strong manufacturing industry and continue to grow their economy. However, a major impediment stands in the way–the country has not been particularly keen on opening up its culture to outsiders. Up until the 1990s, the country did not depend on unskilled foreign laborers. Japan eventually had to accept that in order to continue to grow their economy, they needed to allow unskilled foreign laborers to enter their workforce, but change has been slow to come in this regard.

Japan might not have to look outside after all to fix their population problem. As they did in the past when they were struggling to compete due to lack of natural resource, some innovative thinkers are looking at their population problem as an opportunity. They ask, “Why not use technology to solve yet another crisis?” Many Japanese companies are now investing heavily in humanoid robots to help out with daily tasks. These robots are either being researched or are already being phased into the workplace.

Pepper the Robot (Credit: Aldebaran)

Pepper the Robot (Credit: Aldebaran)

One example is a robot created by Aldebaran Robotics named “Pepper.” Pepper was created for Japanese mobile phone company SoftBank Mobile. While it is a humanoid robot, it’s function is unique. For instance, while ASIMO was built for carrying out physical tasks, Pepper was designed as a “social robot.” It is capable of having a conversation with you by reading and reacting to your emotions. By analyzing your facial expression, body language, and word choice, Pepper can tell when you are happy or sad. Pepper also has a sense of humor, cracking a joke from time to time if you need some cheering up. Pepper can also express its emotions through its own body language, gestures, and tone of voice. While SoftBank has already mobilized 20 of these robots to work in Japanese department stores, perhaps Pepper’s biggest use will be in Japanese households. As a social robot, it was designed to be able to interact with humans and provide a type of companionship. As such, Pepper’s skills will allow it to tend to an aging population. While other less socially sophisticated robots take care of tedious tasks around the elderly’s homes, Pepper offers unconditional emotional support and companionship. In all likelihood, its presence in Japanese households will soon be commonplace.

A cascade of technological advances promises to transform this already remarkable industry. Another Japanese team named Schaft was acquired by Google in 2013 and has since made headway on a promising super-capable robot. Like ASIMO, it is bipedal and has arms. While not quite a humanoid robot, its capabilities surpass ASIMO’s in that it can carry out much more complicated tasks such as climbing ladders, opening doors, driving vehicles, and operating power tools. The applications of this robot are endless, from assisting firefighters to constructing buildings. With robots such like this, Japan can be more efficient in how it distributes its human workforce in that the more mundane and repetitive tasks can be carried by robots while the country’s working population can be focused on more intellectually demanding tasks.

Yet another example of Japanese robots in the workplace will soon be on full display at the Henn-na Hotel. While not open yet, the Henn-na is planning on employing 10 humanoid robots from the start, with an eventual goal of having robots operate over 90% of the hotel’s services. The receptionists will be robots capable of conversing in English, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. They will also be responsible for welcoming guests and making them feel at home. Robots will carry bags, clean rooms, and perform other hotel duties. While these robots will get the most recognition, they will not be the only ones working at the hotel. The hotel doors will have facial recognition instead of room keys, as well as other incorporated technology. This trend will almost certainly go global.

(Credit: Discovery News)

Henn-na Hotel Robot Prototype (Credit: Discovery News)

As of right now, the human brain is still the only thing capable of carrying out complex tasks outside the realm of calculations and physical labor, and this is where Japanese companies will gain their edge and overcome their aging problem. They will have the luxury of being capable of super efficiency in everyday business in that they will delegate most tasks to robots and leave the high-grade critical thinking tasks to humans even though there is no guarantee that humans will be able to hold down even those positions forever with the evolution of AI. Many think the inevitable explosion of robot-dominated menial labor will do more damage than good to the global economy. Regardless, Japan has certainly become a leader in the field of robotics by necessity, and the country is well on its way to solving yet another national problem that will boost them back to the top of the pack of industrialized nations, thus paving the way for a world transformation that will see robots incorporated more and more into our everyday lives.

Ultimately, one has to wonder how much of a threat robots will pose to future generations. The Technological Singularity is on its way. Fasten your seat belts.

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Andrew MezichAndrew Mezich is originally from Anchorage, Alaska and is currently living in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He has been working towards an Aerospace Engineering degree since moving to Colorado three years ago. In his free time between his studies, he enjoys backpacking in the Colorado Mountains, playing guitar, throwing a baseball around with friends, and reflecting on and appreciating the world we live in.