There's nothing artificial about Japan's success in AI: Here's why they're unique
If you’re in a stylish restaurant, you may find yourself sitting on a TOTO toilet, an AI machine designed exclusively to enhance your bathroom excursion. I for one was very excited the first time I encountered a TOTO toilet. In fact the person in the cubicle next to me was probably bewildered as to what could possibly be so thrilling I justified shouting to my friend, “OMG! Have you seen the toilets?!”. It transpires in Japan, having a robot to support and help you with normal daily activities is progressively normalised. In Western countries, however, the culture is less welcoming due to inherent fear, encouraged by many factors.
In a recent article by the Financial Times, Madhumita Murgia investigates the international discrepancies in attitude towards robotics and artificial intelligence. Murgia takes an interesting standpoint, focusing on how popular sci-fi and other forms of fiction in respective countries shape opinions and emotions towards robots. A comparison she uses, supported by research on AI narratives, is between the award-winning sci-fi film The Terminator in the UK, and Astro Boy, a popular family-friendly show in Japan. Even if you consider the connotations of the titles they suggest a divide in each country’s attitude. “Terminator” has rather destructive connotations, far from peaceful. “Boy”, on the other hand, may be perceived as innocent and harmless, as children usually are the personification of such in entertainment. The storylines of each support this, too, with The Terminator choosing their bot to be an assassin, yet Astro Boy’s purpose is to fight evil. In a 2003 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (a segment of the National Institutes of Health), they investigated the impact of TV shows on children in multiple areas of their lives. Something in their findings which may seem vapid but I thought was quite uncomfortable to read is children “tend to believe what they are told”. This places a spotlight on the power TV has to influence children beyond the control of their parents. If children in Japan watch a cartoon robot who is a selfless hero, they’re going to grow up believing robots are allies, not enemies. As exciting and suspense filled The Terminator and other films are, they’re building a subconscious villainous association with robots, instilling fear, distrust, and a humans vs bots mindset. Children and young adults - who will become key decision makers in society later in their lives - are extremely impressionable. Although not a deliberate attempt to shape perception of robotics and most likely a pursuit of profit in a highly competitive entertainment industry, films and TV shows imbedding such strong opinions may cause problems as countries try to implement more AI and robotics into society.
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Progressing from Murgia’s fascinating link between culture and economics in the UK and Japan, let’s look at other factors which could contribute to the (pretty much) polar opposite attitudes towards AI, robots, and everything in between. A general consensus which is deduced by many researchers, notably McKinsey in 2018 is automation is not synonymous with job loss, something the UK and other Western countries have been guilty of assuming. Automation in the workplace will cause disruption, yes, but the accommodation of bots requires a skill shift rather than a contraction of labour supply. For example, Sweden has a retraining programme for citizens left unemployed due to automation because they recognise for automation to cause direct, large scale unemployment would need to be caused by complacency to retrain workers. A cause of insecurity and uncertainty about what will happen as automation further creeps into society is a lack of trust in the government from their citizens. A Pew study found 63% of people in Japan think it’s the government’s responsibility to adapt the country to automation, whereas only 30% in the US share the same belief. The Financial Times say this is a “recipe for anxiety”. I agree; if citizens are given too much autonomy in a case where they didn’t even ask for automation in the first place, it may exacerbate an existing feeling of neglect by the system. This shows that beyond a continual, subtle nudge of attitude through entertainment, a trust (or distrust) in respective governments can determine the level of apprehension a population feels towards AI.
But what do I mean by ‘population’? The people living in a country, right? Well, yes, but Japan, our AI lover, has had an ageing population growing since 1950 and by the end of 2020, over 28% of their population were aged 65+. The UK, on the other hand, has a large portion of their population in the working population category of 15-64 years old, indicating a future ageing population. At present, however, when we talk of the population of Japan and the population of the UK, they can’t be treated as identical apart from their jurisdictions. The demographic of each of these populations play a role of paramount importance when investigating their response to robotics. A report by Reuters published in October 2021 found Japan “expects to have a shortage of 690,000 care workers by 2040” (note this is on top of their labour shortage across the entire working population they’ve experienced for years!). Japan has a long history of complex immigration legislation and forbidding approach to foreign workers. Given they are far into an ageing population structure, robots probably seem like an attractive solution - there’s little downfall since nobody is scared of them! The focus of robots and AI in Japan have been to enhance human life, rather than threaten or compete with it. Going back to the talking TOTO toilet (which will never not be cool - I mean it was even a polite robot!) nobody was ever going to fear the TOTO because no human had the job of being a toilet, or at least I hope not. This is a theme across the implementation of automation shared by most industries in Japan: sanitisation in hospitals, digitalisation of consultations and appointments, scanning faces to ensure face masks are worn, contactless delivery, support lifting heavy objects, to name a few. By allowing a robot to conduct these repetitive, low-skilled tasks is not snatching a job from somebody, it merely allows them to focus on something else, that something else being more skilled and productive. A key to Japan’s introduction and progressive increase in robotics is they’re in people-facing roles rather than being dispensed onto production lines with zero emotional intelligence or exposure to society which is the approach taken by many other countries. People in Japan are learning to be comfortable and accepting them as productive ‘members’ of society, respond to their help and maybe even have some form of affection towards them since many have a cute, doe-eyed face as seen on Astro Boy back in the ‘60s. In an article by International Finance, they describe Japan’s robots functioning to “assure a safer working environment while improving the productivity and quality of the products and services”. You can’t really argue with that, can you? They’re even concerned about the safety of work, further ensuring humans feel protected and unthreatened by their robotic allies.
In a country already comfortable with AI, COVID-19 has likely zapped any remnants of discomfort or unfamiliarity about being served by a robot or having one lead you to your appointment room which remained in Japan. Robots, as long as sanitised, will not transmit COVID-19 and therefore may be welcomed more so than humans in certain situations. If you can use a robot to allow increased productivity of human workers and decrease risk of exposure to a highly contagious virus, why wouldn’t you use Pepper (Softbank’s robot greeted on shop floors in Japan)? Or Ugo, the household robot designed by Mira Robotics specifically to target Japan’s shrinking working population problem? COVID-19 has proved the adaptability of the humanity. Nobody would have believed three years ago we could handle restrictions, lockdowns, separation from loved ones, etc., with no warning. But we did it and continue to do so. Despite a longing by many for a life which resembles 2019, I think we are a lot more open-minded, resilient and welcome to change. With that, accepting robots and other futuristic concepts which used to be safely contained in a 2D fictional world have become less far-fetched. Japan - who aspire to be the world’s number one industrial robot maker - will be able to reap the benefits of this and increase their robot supply to a more welcoming consumer. Having supplied 52% of robots globally in 2019 and 7 out of 10 industrial robot companies being Japanese already, they’re at the forefront of this industry and are stubborn to keep it that way.
Japan holds this advantage due to their demographics, cultural nudges and subsequent use of robotics and AI. Other countries such as the UK who are approaching an inevitable ageing population will need to be conscious of the barriers they will face as they strive to increase AI and automation into industries, particularly those observable by the public. Deliberate actions will need to be taken to try and untie the tight, complex knot formed by the small but regular feeding by the entertainment industry from childhood throughout a lifetime to villainise robots and showcase them as violent threats. Alongside this will need to be the government’s reassurance to citizens that they’re on society’s side; they’ll have a system to help if automation changes skill criterion and not isolate people by making them feel like it’s a choice between a robot or them.
Into the metaverse: how sci-fi shapes our attitudes to the future by Madhumita Murgia (Financial Times) https://www.ft.com/content/2f35be37-9da8-4cf6-89b2-8488b36c5a63
Why Japan isn't afraid of robots by Gillian Tett (Financial Times) https://www.ft.com/content/87ac09b0-8c9a-11e9-a24d-b42f641eca37
Impact of media use on children and youth by NCBI https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2792691/
Skill shift: Automation and the future of the workforce by McKinsey Global Institute https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/skill-shift-automation-and-the-future-of-the-workforce
Pandemic opens doors to switch jobs in Japan, but pay not rising much by Tetsushi Kajimoto (Reuters) https://www.reuters.com/world/the-great-reboot/pandemic-opens-doors-switch-jobs-japan-pay-not-rising-much-2021-10-22/
Japan's robots are conquering the world by International Finance https://internationalfinance.com/japans-robots-are-conquering-the-world/