Japan's Population Decline and the Robotics Revolution

Japan's Population Decline and the Robotics Revolution

Patrick Doherty (Letterkenny Institute of Technology, Ireland), Nigel McKelvey (Letterkenny Institute of Technology, Ireland) and Thomas C. Dowling (Letterkenny Institute of Technology, Ireland)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 9
DOI: 10.4018/IJIDE.2020100105
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Abstract

Japan is experiencing a large population decline. The current population of 127 million will, at current estimates, drop by one-third to 88 million by 2065. At the same time, the population is ageing greatly with 28% aged 65 or over, a world record. Japan is pioneering the widespread introduction of robotics into many areas of society to compensate for the population fall. It aims to replace humans in many sectors like manufacturing and food processing. It also plans to introduce service robots that work closely with human beings in settings like care homes and hospitals. It is the largest such program of its kind globally. The ultimate success of this program depends on creating truly autonomous robots and will require Japan to become a global leader in artificial intelligence alongside the United States and China.
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Introduction

Japan’s birth rate has dropped to the lowest rate since records began in 1899. Currently, the population stands at 127 million. This could drop as low as 82 million by 2065. Japan also has an ageing population problem with the largest percentage of older people in the world. By 2036, 33.3% of the total population will be 65 or older. By 2065, the number of people over the age of 100 will reach 547,000 (Ipss.go.jp, 2018). This social issue has clear implications for the economy due to labour shortages and increased social welfare costs.

Since the Second World War, Japan has been synonymous with advancements in science and technology and led the world in areas like the automobile and electronics industries. Japanese corporations sell their products globally. As of September 2018, Toyota is the sixth largest company in the world, by revenue (Fortune, 2018). Japanese companies pioneered consumer electronics like the Sony Walkman while Japan was the world’s second-largest economy until China overtook it in 2011 (Kollewe and McCurry, 2011). Japan is the world’s largest supplier of industrial robots with Japanese companies supplying 55% of all industrial robots in 2017 (Fujiwara, 2018).

Background

One definition of a robot states that it ‘is a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer’ (Oxford Dictionaries, 2019). It does not necessarily have humanoid features. The word ‘robot’ first appeared in a 1920 science fiction play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek (Roberts, 2007). The play, ‘R.U.R’, told the story of a global human-robot war and set the negative, adversarial tone for the West’s attitude towards robots. To be truly considered a robot, the device must be capable of reacting autonomously to its environment. This ability is called the ‘sense, think, act’ paradigm (Siegel, 2003). For example, a remote-controlled drone can only act on direct orders. However, a fully autonomous drone can sense, think and then act according to cues from the environment, classifying it as robotic.

Japan has an unprecedented and hugely ambitious strategy to utilise robots throughout society. It aims to become the global robotic superpower and hopes robots can boost the Japanese economy in the 21st century as automobiles did in the 20th. (Walters, 2019). This program is called the ‘Robot Revolution Initiative’ by the Japanese government and launched in January 2015. Three ‘pillars’ comprise this plan:

  • 1.

    Become the global robot innovation hub;

  • 2.

    Become the global leader in robot utilisation throughout society;

  • 3.

    Become the global leader in robotics utilising Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies.

There are clearly defined goals to aim for by 2020. An example would be the aim to introduce 20 separate types of robot in the agriculture and food sectors (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, 2015).

Japan is targeting three sectors of the economy for widespread robotic usage:

  • 1.

    Manufacturing/Service/Hospitality: For example, 30% target of all picking, screening and checking roles to be robotic;

  • 2.

    Medical/Nursing aka ‘Service Robots: Will target robotic replacement of roles in nursing homes like bed transfer, walking support, toilet support, bathing support and monitoring of dementia patients;

  • 3.

    Agriculture/Food: For example, introduce GPS automated tractors.

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