The population of Japan is projected to decrease by around sixteen million people over the next twenty years. This trend will be accompanied by the continued greying of society, creating a growing need for primary care givers. A preview of what this future could look like can already be seen in rural towns and cities across the country, where populations are shrinking rapidly, often leaving only the elderly behind with no one to take care of them. Lower numbers of young workers also means that many jobs, from factory workers to fishermen to shop clerks, are going to go unfilled. Robots are envisioned as a way for Japan to fill the gaps in its labor force caused by the coming demographic shifts.
One example where businesses have already adapted to an aging workforce is squid fishing. For environmental reasons, fishing for squid with nets is prohibited, consequently requiring a highly intensive process that until recently has been difficult to emulate with machines; however, by adapting technology used in factories, Japanese engineers were able to create a system that could revitalize an industry that was suffering from a lack of new recruits and overseas competition.
Advances in technology have also allowed factory robots to take on more delicate tasks, therefore allowing a new generation of robots to work side-by-side with their human counterparts. These robots excel at assembling precision components, in turn allowing their human partners to focus on the more abstract aspects of production. Japanese companies hope that the adoption of these kinds of assembly lines will allow them to stay competitive with overseas factories while maintaining their focus on quality.
The taxi industry is another place where labor shortages have made the adoption of automated systems paramount. The depopulation of rural areas of Japan has caused many rail operators to limit or discontinue service to these areas. This leaves many senior citizens effectively stranded or relying on taxi services for their daily needs; however, not only is it difficult for these companies to find drivers, the costs of maintaining their fleets can be prohibitively expensive, with up to seventy percent of their costs going to personnel. Driverless cars offer a way to increase the competiveness of these companies while providing better and more efficient service, not only to senior citizens, but with the built in translation tools they offer, to travelers from around the world.
As technology continues to improve the application of robots to solve problems in everyday life is only going to increase. Japan has an established history of excellence in robotics. Leveraging this past and embracing the future these technologies can promise is one way for Japan to overcome the challenges ahead.
Yoshiyuki Sankai, Ph.D., who is known for pioneering leading-edge technology in the field of innovative Cyborgtype robots, will be giving a lecture held by the Center on Japanese Economy and Business titled “Social Innovation with Innovative Cybernic Systems: Challenges to Shape the Future ‘Society 5.0’” at Uris Hall, Columbia Business School from 6:30p.m. - 8:00p.m, Tuesday, April 11, 2017.
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