Japan’s and the world’s future with robots
Japan continues to face a declining birth rate and an ageing population, with a quarter of its population over the age of 65. What can technology do to support people in living satisfactorily and working safely as long as they want?
A piece of the puzzle is the utilization of robotics technology. According to a report by International Data Corporation, worldwide spending on robotics and related services is predicted to total $135.4 billion by 2019, with most of the anticipated growth expected in the healthcare and process manufacturing industries. So far, robots are replacing human workers in many domains, but there still remain several areas where human’s flexible decision-making capabilities are not easily substitutable. The so-called hybrid concept of humans and robots working together as one is attracting particular attention in various fields. Science fictions are no longer beyond the realm of reality.
The world’s first cyborg-type robot HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) is the most representative example. The robot suit from Japanese company Cyberdyne improves, supports, enhances the wearer’s bodily functions. When a person tries to move one’s body, he/she first thinks: “I want to walk”. Necessary signals are transmitted from the brain to the relevant muscles through the nervous system and very faint signals leak on the skin surface by this process. HAL is able to read the signals and recognize what sort of motion the wearer intends. Then HAL drives its power units and provides the motion with bigger power than the person ordinarily exerts. It can also make paralysed people walk.
The applications of robot suits have appeared in a variety of situations. HAL for living support, single joint type, is used for any arm and knee joints and the wearer can train while lying on the bed. In disaster rescue and support activities, HAL, whole-body type, supported workers involved in repair work under radiation exposure after nuclear accident at a power plant following the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake. At Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, HAL for labour support, lumbar type, plays a role in tasks involving heavy loads such as unloading large cargo.
Japan is now grappling with problems that many countries will face over the next few decades. I recommend the rest of the world to look to Japan as an example for dealing with dramatic demographic changes. What Japan does today will reflect on how to solve such problems in future. India should also pay attention as it will have to deal with an ageing society in a few decades.
In providing homecare and intergenerational exchanges for ageing population, Pepper, humanoid robot from Japanese tech giant SoftBank Group will play an important role. Most care work historically is performed by family members on an unpaid basis, therefore, it is excluded from economic category analysis. What is the real worth of a humanoid robot which learns the operation of fetching and grasping with accuracy soft objects such a cup of water to take medicines for the elderly? Unlike what the younger generation thinks, the elderly will be far happier with the arrangement. On the softer side, robots will also be able to provide emotional and physical care.
Sony announced in June 2016 that they will re-enter the robotics business. It has been more than 10 years since Sony discontinued the production of the dog-type robot Aibo. This time around too, they aim to develop robots similar to Aibo that will be involved in caring, nurturing, companionship and other activities. The new avatar of Aibo should be back by 2018. Even after Aibo’s previous round of production ended in 2006, the research work had continued. Sony obviously has concluded that a wider range of services can now be provided using artificial intelligence and sensory technology which were underdeveloped a decade ago.
What does the term “living with robots” conjure in your mind? There is nothing unrealistic about chasing ideas. Today, development is underway on technologies that can help people in practical, palpable ways. This is also the time to discuss the ethical issues associated with replacing humans. Do the elderly enjoy interacting with robots? Would automated factories run full of smart collaborative robots and devoid of humans? Robots cannot do it all alone, and humans will play a big part in most arenas.
I am of the view that technological change has more positive fallouts than negative ones. Historically technological change has led to destruction of many jobs, but has contributed to creation of many new things and a massive jump in productivity. Therefore, technology has been linked with an increase in human well-being.
Japan has a ticking demographic time bomb. However, the good thing is that the country is also a prime candidate for robotics revolutions. The start-up ecosystem has been growing and the bigger companies like SoftBank and Sony are setting up funds and research exchanges that help accelerate innovation.
We will live in a world where various robots move around freely and interact with us. We should not forget that a lot of tasks have a human dimension that robots cannot perform. Though it may not be long before humans coexist with robots. So let’s take it positively and move forward.
Katsutoshi Dobashi is a tech journalist. He tweets @dobatty
This is part of the Young Asian Writers series, a Mint initiative to bring young voices from different Asian countries to the fore.