Aging Japan? No Problem, Let Robots Do the Work

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 4/13/2008 02:02:00 AM

To put it mildly, Japan's demographic profile does not bode well for the future. The replacement rate for a country to maintain its current population is usually defined at the level of 2.1 children per woman. Like many industrialized countries, however, Japan is far from reaching that level. In 2007, the CIA World Factbook estimates that the fertility rate in Japan was a mere 1.23. This poses challenges for Japan in that its rapidly aging population is also one of the longest-living: According to the CIA World Factbook again, Japan has the third-longest life expectancy at birth at 82.02 years. Compounding matters, Japan remains very reluctant about allowing more migrants to perform necessary work in the country. Japan's situation goes like this:

Long life expectancy + low birth rate + reluctance to accept migrants = demographic disaster.

Now, this article from Reuters has been receiving a lot of attention from the techno-geek sites, but it is IPE to the core. To avoid having to allow gaijin (foreigners) in to take care of Japan's rapidly aging population, a Japanese thinktank proposes that robots ought to do more of the work in the future. I often see technological solutions to problems as necessary, but in this case, I think Japan would go overboard if this route were adopted. There are many migrants who would gladly perform the work if only Japan would let them. Try multiculturalism instead of techno-geekism for a change. In the meantime, we are ze robots...

Robots could fill the jobs of 3.5 million people in graying Japan by 2025, a thinktank says, helping to avert worker shortages as the country's population shrinks. Japan faces a 16 percent slide in the size of its workforce by 2030 while the number of elderly will mushroom, the government estimates, raising worries about who will do the work in a country unused to, and unwilling to contemplate, large-scale immigration.

The thinktank, the Machine Industry Memorial Foundation, says robots could help fill the gaps, ranging from microsized capsules that detect lesions to high-tech vacuum cleaners. Rather than each robot replacing one person, the foundation said in a report that robots could make time for people to focus on more important things. Japan could save 2.1 trillion yen ($21 billion) of elderly insurance payments in 2025 by using robots that monitor the health of older people, so they don't have to rely on human nursing care, the foundation said in its report. Caregivers would save more than an hour a day if robots helped look after children, older people and did some housework, it added. Robotic duties could include reading books out loud or helping bathe the elderly.

"Seniors are pushing back their retirement until they are 65 years old, day care centers are being built so that more women can work during the day, and there is a move to increase the quota of foreign laborers. But none of these can beat the shrinking workforce," said Takao Kobayashi, who worked on the study. "Robots are important because they could help in some ways to alleviate such shortage of the labor force."

The current fertility rate is 1.3 babies per woman, far below the level needed to maintain the population, while the government estimates that 40 percent of the population will be over 65 by 2055, raising concerns about who will look after the graying population.

Kobayashi said changes was still needed for robots to make a big impact on the workforce. "There's the expensive price tag, the functions of the robots still need to improve, and then there are the mindsets of people," he said. "People need to have the will to use the robots."