Imagine a bed that turns into an electric wheelchair, or a sensor system on the factory floor of an automated warehouse that tells machines to slow down when humans are walking nearby, or an exoskeleton that can help a stroke victim learn to walk again. These are examples of robots that exist today.
Now imagine a robot with which you can have meaningful conversations; a robot that can not only carry a disabled person, but also bring them food and drinks; or a robot building other robots in a completely automated factory, taking people completely out of the production process. These are the robots of the future.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) with the full encouragement of the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, aims to make Japan the world’s leader in this emerging sector, namely, robotics.
In 2014, the government of Japan — in its revised Japan Revitalization Strategy document, which is part of the structural reforms element of Abenomics — established a goal to realize a “New Industrial Revolution Driven by Robots.”
This was revised in 2015—as the “New Robot Strategy. Japan’s Robot Strategy–Vision, Strategy, Action Plan”—with a goal to establish Japan as a robotics superpower.
To this end, the New Robot Strategy is aiming not only to expand and develop robotics, but also to use the industry as the panacea for most of Japan’s demographic and labor challenges. After all, the country for some time has been grappling with an aging and declining population, as well as a shrinking employee base.
Thus, robots are to be used both in a complementary manner (robotics helping humans) and in a substitutive way (robots replacing humans).
The New Robot Strategy aims at the gradual automation of just about everything: from agricultural equipment to automobiles, and disaster-relief services to robots in the food, cosmetics, and even pharmaceuticals industries.
The strategy also has a goal to expand “smart” factories—plants that are completely automated on all levels of production and operate around the clock, non-stop.
Another focus of the initiative is expanding the role of service robots, with intermediate goals of seeing 30 percent penetration by 2020, and an ultimate target of 70 percent of such machines employed in the sector.
Could this target of achieving mass robotization across the various sectors be realized in the allotted time frame? Japan has a strong history of industrializing and expanding the world’s robotics market, but the strategy may be asking more than either the Japanese government or its people can handle by 2020.
Moreover, turning Japan into a “robot town” or honing Japan to become a global hub of robot innovation fits in with the recurring theme that Japan’s officials want its domestic companies to compete in robotics on the world market. And there is a good reason for this.
METI fears Japanese robotics may succumb to the so-called Galapagos syndrome—the technological phenomenon in Japan whereby electronic devices for the domestic market thrive, while the foreign market is almost non-existent.
To avoid such an eventuality, the ministry is seeking adherence to international standards — such as those of the International Organization for Standards (ISO), an industry norms-setting body.
This ought to draw in high-end investment, allow international compliance, and expand Japanese robot exports to world markets that seemingly are becoming less reliant on them.
While technically voluntary, industry standards in this sector will be encouraged by the Japanese government. Indeed, robotics pioneers such as Cyberdyne Inc — whose Hybrid Assistive Limb suit, invented in Japan, was the first system of its kind certified under ISO 13482 standards — are already paving the way.
And although not explicitly mentioned, meeting these standards could be contingent on future funding of research and development by the government of Japan.
Moreover, operating systems for robots will be standardized, while interchangeable parts will have more variety. Meanwhile, huge reliance will be placed on the expansion of big data and utilization of artificial intelligence.
METI’s strategy essentially calls for Japan to concentrate all its economic might on revitalizing domestic industries through robotization.
And, public-private partnerships will continue to be emphasized, with a focus on enhancing Japan Inc’s ability — as a country—to compete globally.
To METI, the creation of robot operating systems and middleware is “beyond the scope of any individual company.” Society itself must change, so that we can reach a point where humans and robots cohabit daily.
But greater societal integration of robotics is hard to conceptualize. As METI itself reports, Japan is facing a decreasing interest in science and technology (S&T), not to mention the difficulties governments generally face when attempting to execute social change.
Meanwhile, METI’s strategy makes no mention of ethics or society’s reaction to the mass use of robots. How will robotization affect international competition, domestic labor unions, and peoples’ general perception of robots? These are critical questions worth careful consideration.
The New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) is Japan’s largest public research and development management organization.
Its 2014 White Paper on Robotization of Industry, Business and Our Life suggests a practical approach to considering how society might accept increased robotics technology on all levels, and includes an admission that difficulties lie ahead.
Nurses in Japan, for instance, have noted they need help assisting elderly with their mobility, as well as with living independently and fighting dementia. Each of these has its own degree of human-robot interaction that varies, depending on the elderly person’s general feelings toward, and knowledge of, robots.
Fighting dementia, for instance, will require patients to have a certain degree of trust and feelings for a robot. Robots that help elderly patients physically will also face certain hurdles regarding trust.
Meanwhile, humanoid robots, such as Softbank’s Pepper, are grabbing attention in today’s retail market, but remain limited in what they can do for the elderly.
What is to be done?
There’s no doubt robotics technology will continue to expand in the world market. The level that visionaries see robots attaining one day is as optimistic as it was 30 years ago. With the explosion of big data and emerging opportunities for robotics utilization, productivity across various sectors could boom over the next decade.
But the serious demographic and labor problems facing Japan today won’t be solved simply by building more robots—certainly not to any reasonable degree by 2020. And, beyond the manufacturing floor, there are likely to be some intense debates about the evolution of human-robot interactions.
Robotics will evolve at a pace that meets the needs of industry overall, be it METI’s strategy, NEDO’s trajectory outlined in its white paper, or other S&T policy, such as that contained in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s 4th S&T Basic Plan (to be renewed this year).
Not just in Japan, but elsewhere, too, industries increasingly will rely on robotics coupled with big data and artificial intelligence in the coming years. And certainly robots can help mitigate several of Japan’s woes—to an extent.
But, given the major reforms Tokyo must pursue regarding labor, security, and budget issues, Japan is unlikely to accomplish meaningful robot penetration by 2020, notwithstanding METI’s and Abe’s fervent wishes.
- Riley Walters is a research assistant at the Heritage Foundation, a public policy research institute.
This piece originally appeared in Japan Today