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What Japan can teach the world about Robots, Immigration and Old Age


Japan is at the forefront of the humanoid robotics revolution.  This is not just an expression of Japan’s electro mechanical prowess, but runs deeper: it is part of a cultural phenomenon.  Robots in Japanese culture have Greek-god like strength and abilities with idiosyncratic personalities to match.  The West also have their modern Greek gods, the Supermen and Frankensteins, but while there is a limited likelihood that the West will see real superheros anytime soon, it is likely that Japan will see useful robots.

Robots are embedded into Japanese culture…

Because robots are embedded into Japanese culture, it has made the concept of robots interacting in real society seem quite natural.  And that is the reason why so many Japanese companies have been investing in robots: not for whimsy, but rather robots are seen as a highly profitable future industry where robots are active human help-mates.  The key market is selling robots to Japan’s rapidly expanding old age population.

Japan is a highly homogenous society compared to most advanced nations.  For much of the great age of European exploration and colonisation (1600s-1890s) it remained deliberately isolated from the rest of the world.  A brilliantly conceived and rapid period of catch up brought Japan to levels of European industrialisation, helping keep Japan from the fate of next door China, which was abused and exploited by the West.  The run up to the Second World War brought in a brief colonisation experiment which ended abruptly after the war ended.  Immigration, as a result, was not widespread, was restricted to a few hundred thousand Koreans, and has not been part of Japanese culture.

…immigration is not.

The West, on the other hand, has had a very different approach to immigration: the Americas were founded on immigration, with millions of Europeans (and eventually Asians once restrictions were lifted) either fleeing terrible conditions at home or simply seeking a better life in the New World.  Australia and New Zealand were also the recipients of European largess.  In Europe itself, decolonisation resulted in huge waves of immigration from former colonists to the lands of their colonial masters and post Second World War labour shortages saw large numbers of north Africans and Turks end up in northern Europe.

Much of the success of the West, in particular the United States, can be attributed to immigration (see previous post) and so it is frequently seen as the solution to one of the greatest demographic transformations in history: there are more old people than in any other time in history and all these people are dependent on the labours of the younger members of their societies.

As Japan gets older it needs more workers to look after the old.

Japan has the oldest people in the world.  Already 23% of the population are over the age of 65 and this number is expected to increase to a staggering 38% by 2055.  The West’s solution to this problem is immigration: allow more young people in and they will provide the labour and tax base to look after the increasing numbers of old people.

What Japan has realised, however, is that bringing in new people to help pay for old people is a short term fix.  Those immigrants get old too.  Eventually they will need care, resulting in even more new people required to sustain the previous immigrants.  This is a classic Ponzi scheme, and like all such schemes eventually they go catastrophically bust.  In the process of building up the Ponzi scheme Japanese society would be radically transformed by the large numbers of immigrants required to create this Ponzi scheme, something that they are culturally unwilling to accept.

Robots are Japan’s  bet on how to manage this demographic shift without setting up an unsustainable Ponzi scheme through large waves of immigration…

So robots are Japan’s big bet on how to manage this demographic shift without setting up an unsustainable Ponzi scheme through large waves of immigration and changing their culture in the process.  Unfortunately, this bet may not quite work out the way that they had hoped either.  Despite the fact Japanese robots are already mechanically sophisticated, they are spectacularly stupid.

…the problem is that robots are spectacularly stupid.

It turns out that getting a robot to have human like range of movement is quite straight forward.  Plenty of Japanese companies have already achieved this, ranging from Honda (whose Asimo is pictured at the top of this page) to Toshiba to Toyota. The issue is that programming robots to operate autonomously as proven to be very difficult.  Basic human movements such as walking up stairs are seen as technological marvels because it is so hard for a robot think through the actions required.  As a result, robots have barely made it out of the research lab and are not selling well.

Remotely controlled robot avatars may be the solution.

The solution, however, may lie in virtual immigration: robots acting as avatars for workers living in different countries.  Avatars are currently quite rudimentary:  The Daily Mail reported recently on a paraplegic who can interact from his care bed with the rest of the world via a computer hooked up to some wheels.  They appear more sophisticated in science fiction: in the Mexican film Sleep Dealerworkers based in Mexico are hooked up to robots operating in the United States and in James Cameron’s Avatar humans control genetically modified blue skinned aliens in gravity defying planet.

Connecting up an Asimo to a remote operator does not seem that far fetched.

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