What do Japanese Robots Dream About? 

Japan’s pending robot revolution.

Maybe you remember the movie Blade Runner, based on American writer Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). The main plot concerns a robot hunter who is faced with killing (“retiring”) six escaped Nexus-6 model androids, and man who helps the fugitive androids. The novel explores the issue of what it is to be human. Unlike humans, the androids are claimed to possess no sense of empathy. This film came to mind recently following a report that the European Union is considering that robots, counted as humans, should pay taxes and contribute to social costs. What’s more, they should have an off switch so that they can be automatically turned off in case they decide to emulate the Nexus-6 androids seen in Blade Runner.

While the EU (and Bill Gates) is contemplating linking robots with taxes, China is heavily promoting them in their Industry 4.0 development plan, Made in China 2025 (MiC2025), which, according to the OECD, will lead it to becoming world leader in terms of R&D investments by 2019. If robots could dream, in Europe they would dream about having to pay taxes because they are substituting people’s jobs, while in China they would dream about receiving public funds because they are contributing to economic growth.

So, what would Japanese robots dream about?

Japan has its own vision, in that it dreams of highly empathetic humanoids. What’s more, it’s spending a fortune on projects that have yet to come to fruition either commercially or industrially, pending a robotics revolution similar to that seen in the electronics industry in the 1970s.

For the moment, we have Pepper, SoftBank’s humanoid, who politely welcomes us at the entrance of its telephone outlets, ASIMO (Honda), who has been seen playing football with ex-US president Barack Obama, Sony’s QRIO dancing to the beat of techno music, and Aiko Chihira (Toshiba), who welcomes clients in Mitsukoshi's Nihombashi department store. Despite the efforts of these technology and industrial corporate leaders and the Japanese government, it’s easy to get the impression that these general advances are more about publicity than being truly effective in terms of improving the lives of the elderly or disabled. This means that the external view of the robotic advances in Japan is somewhat pessimistic. In the Bloomberg article "A Japanese Billionaire’s Robot Dreams Are on Hold," Pavel Alpeyev and Takashi Amano write, “Japan’s obsession with robots isn’t just a cliché. Companies have been trying to drum up enthusiasm for them for years, with little success.... Culture clashes [and] artificial intelligence became key stumbling blocks” for many projects. The authors argue there is a lack of vision vis-à-vis these tremendous efforts, which are often led by brilliant engineers and project managers with no connection to corporate or business strategy. Although we may be more or less in agreement, it’s still a point of view to think about.

Prime Minister Abe urged attendees at the Robot Revolution Initiative Council in May 2015 “to spread the use of robotics from large-scale factories to every corner of our economy and society.” The council is made up of 200 companies and universities, and aims to expand robotics throughout Japanese industry to replace aging workforce, with the goal of increasing sales from 600 billion yen ($4.9 billion) a year to 2.4 trillion yen by 2020. These aims aren’t as absurd as they seem, since Japan has over the years developed a hardware robotics industry capable of supplying components that are increasingly more sophisticated and cheaper, which will allow small and medium-sized companies to get a foothold in this promising industry aimed at both the industrial and service sectors. That said, it’ll be interesting to see how 200 companies reach an agreement in terms of creating an effective, competitive vision within the next five years that may leave some of them by the wayside. As Michael Porter said, sometimes consensus is the enemy of strategy, and in innovation, entrepreneurial—and occasionally disruptive—capacity is a key factor in success.

According to Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the Japanese services sector is set to potentially enjoy the greatest impact, since it’s a traditionally inefficient sector in Japan, being only about 60% as productive as its US counterpart. Japan’s government plan is promoting robots to provide logistical support, perform surgery, provide nursing care, and assist in disaster recovery. As robotics expert Yoshiko Yurugi said at the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, “We are entering an era when we will definitely have to rely on the help of robots.”

Nevertheless, not everything is cheap precision hardware, meaning that what will make robots profitable in the future will be their independence and ability to interact with humans and their surroundings through artificial intelligence. Heading in this direction is Omron, with its robot FORPHEUS, a table tennis instructor robot with commercial potential that is capable of analyzing in real time all the information it receives through numerous sensors connected in its system. This is Omron’s third generation robot, and has been designed to interact with humans (cyber-physical interfaces) not solely to improve productivity—as in the European or Chinese approaches—but to help them: in this case, to improve their sporting abilities in table tennis.

Will Japanese robots be dreaming of playing table tennis in the future?

We’re about to find out.

Photo credit: tsuneo / 123RF

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