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Why the Next Decade Will Be Neither Chinese Nor Indian

Does robotic technology have the potential to make Japan the largest economy in the world?

March 15, 2006

Does robotic technology have the potential to make Japan the largest economy in the world?

It is now fashionable to talk of the 21st century as if it will be the “Asian Century” — with China being touted as the coming power, economically and militarily.

Given that I am Indian, it will hardly be a surprise to find that I am not among the fans of this theory regarding the future.

But you may be surprised to find me only a little more sanguine about India — and putting my money instead on Japan.

My choice may be particularly surprising, given that Japan’s economy has been dragging for the last 25 or more years, in spite of everything that the Japanese government has tried.

So why am I now putting my money on Japan? Sadly, it is not because I believe that Japan is on the verge of rejecting the cultural limitations imposed by its past.

Rather, it is because of robots! My view of Japan’s place in the world through the next couple of decades started changing in mid-summer 2005, when I was one of the over 22 million people who visited the World Expo in Aichi.

My main interest in going to the Expo was to catch up with what Japan had been doing in robotics, as Japan leads the world in this field. I have been following developments in robotics for some time.

The developments that I saw were both exciting — and frightening. Robots could be seen:

  • playing music in an opera, specially written for them by a French composer
  • multiplying manifold the physical strength of an old, sick or weak person
  • cleaning surfaces (including vertical windows in high-rise buildings)
  • playing baseball (pitching as well as batting)
  • performing or assisting surgery (including brain surgery)
  • acting as guards (they had 360 degree vision, were able to spot a human even on the other side of a (thin) wall and ascertain whether that person was authorized to be there. If not, and if the person came to a door or window, the robots were able to fire 20 paint balls a minute at the intruder. They could also check for fires — and so on).

In addition, there were therapeutic robots, child robots (able to talk and play with children and even give them educational quizzes), dog robots, snake robots, amphibious robots, self-reshaping robots, bomb-disposal robots.

Some could communicate with each other, others could tell you "I am hungry" when they start running out of electricity and then take themselves off for recharging. There were robots designed for reception work in offices and hotels (already able to speak four languages — very good voice recognition, although a bit slow).

Other robots had "legs" so that they can walk along or go up stairs. They could also transfer their own weight to wheels in order to speed along a paved surface.

Despite the fact that their tolerance of road irregularities is presently only ten centimeters, that they are only able to go up or down inclines of 10% at present and that their maximum speed is currently only six kilometers per hour, there is no reason why these limitations couldn't be overcome in the future.

There were robots that could take you around obstacles (living and non-living) to a predetermined destination without needing to be "driven."

There was even an "artist" robot that created caricatures of the people in front of it, using crayons on huge rice crackers (you could take home the caricature of yourself, but the queue was too long, so I did not bother to have mine done).

There was also a “dance” robot, but, as far as I could discern, the poor male (human) dancer was actually pushing and shoving the “female dance robot” around — the robot was not dancing by itself. OK, so these were all prototypes and there remain many glitches to be sorted out.

The “active life” of these prototypes seemed to me rather short (an enormous number of them were out of commission, being repaired, so that I could not see them in action).

Presumably, I would have been even more impressed if they were also working. But what will happen when these glitches have been sorted out and such robots can be mass-manufactured?

The Japanese are fully committed to making that possible in the next seven to ten years. And even the existing prototypes are already remarkably cheap.

The whole theme at the Expo was to soothe and reassure the primarily Japanese public that these robots were intended to assist particularly an ageing society in Japan.

The accompanying propaganda was in full swing, using music, multimedia and interpersonal interaction with the scientists and technologists involved in developing robots.

But if the main problem is ageing, it is much easier — and would contribute to sorting out other world problems — if an appropriate number of poor unemployed young people from around the world were to be imported into Japan and taught the Japanese language and culture.

After all, one can begin to cope with the spoken language in about two months, although the written language is an entirely different matter — and the culture is even more difficult. But presumably robots will not be able to cope with nuances of culture in the foreseeable future either.

In any case, the Expo did not address this question: If we have robots that can do all these things, what "jobs" will be left for humans to do?

As far as I can make out, only creative jobs (such as art, music, literature and cuisine), scientific jobs (such as discovering new knowledge and systematizing it — including, for example, history), and technological jobs (such as conceiving, designing, prototyping, manufacturing and maintaining robots).

Not a small number of jobs, of course, but nowhere near the 500 million or so “jobs” that exist today.

And even these creative, scientific and technological jobs will be left for humans to do only as long as quantum computers with fuzzy logic won't start being produced.

I am told on good authority that such computers are about ten years away — but even if they are 20 years away, that is not a particularly long time.

All products and technologies have historically gravitated towards the mass or middle-class market. Technology has slowly been eroding the size of the middle class in most developed societies, displacing the middle either into the richer or the poorer classes.

However, the impact of robotics on this middle level will be to more or less completely eliminate the middle class from the world economy.

The result will be a world divided even more firmly into the rich and the poor, with a mass of disaffected, but relatively educated people in the middle. In time, robots will move both up and down the value chain to displace even more people.

In any case, the jobs that would be left to do in a robot-driven world are not jobs that the mass of human beings can do.

Moreover, if we could do them, the oversupply of humans for each position would be so great as to make it nearly impossible for people to support themselves at the wage level.

If the mass of people turned, instead, to producing products and services which are not going to be produced by the sorts of robots that the Japanese are preparing to launch, then the over-production of such non-robotic goods and services would be so huge as to render the resulting "products" (under the current economic system) monetarily nearly worthless.

Continue to part II.

The above feature represents the personal views of Professor Prabhu Guptara, and was contributed in an entirely personal capacity.