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Mar 25th 2021

Autonomous Systems to Bolster Japan’s Aging Workforce

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Japan’s population is aging at an unprecedented rate. One in five people are currently over age 65, and by 2030, that ratio will shift to one in three. For a country ranked as the world’s third largest economy, Japan must find ways to bolster its aging workforce, while also fortifying national security and attending to its elderly.

Autonomous systems designed with advanced robotics, artificial intelligence and other digital innovations could replace or enhance human labor. According to analysts at McKinsey & Company, Japan’s potential for automation exceeds that of other countries, such as Germany and South Korea, where aging populations are also growing rapidly.

Labor-intensive work (i.e. construction) and tedious, repetitive work (i.e. data collecting and machine operation) top the list of occupations that could be replaced by autonomous systems. That would put the available workforce into more flexible jobs that require more creativity and higher levels of thinking, which could allow companies to lower costs and boost productivity, researchers say.

Construction

Only about 10% of construction workers in Japan are below the age of 30, as the Japan Times reports. Nonetheless, construction projects are booming in the country. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched a stimulus program, known as Abenomics, partially aimed at ramping up infrastructure projects ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, which was slated for 2020 but rescheduled for 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the tight labor market, construction companies such as Shimizu Corp., headquartered in Tokyo, have invested billions to develop robots that can build materials, weld steel, inspect premises, install ceilings and more. Equipped with state-of-the-art artificial intelligence, cameras and sensors, Shimizu’s Robo-Welder and Robo-Buddy can weld and bolt for hours without tiring.

In Mie Prefecture, on the southeast coast of Japan’s main island, robots are building a concrete dam. Huge, crane-like equipment from Tokyo-based Obayashi stacks enormous slabs of concrete, each about 15 square yards. The layers are made by remote-controlled tower cranes that pour concrete into molds onsite, according to Asia Nikkei. The 275-feet-high dam is scheduled for completion in March 2023.

Dam building requires many of the repetitive actions robotic technology has already honed in factory-based assembly — but robotic bricklayers need bricks. Enter Tokyo-based Kajima, which is developing robots to clear the way and also deliver materials. The company has self-driving bulldozers and dump trucks that use sensors like LIDAR and GPS to “see” the environment. They can excavate, deliver and dump 24 hours a day, if needed.

National Security

Japan is currently ranked as one of the most peaceful countries in the world, according to the 2020 Global Peace Index. However, its close proximity to China, Russia and North Korea make the island nation vulnerable to military posturing. Japan’s Self Defense Force, established in the 1950s, stands guard and patrols more than 18,000 miles of coastline. According to CNN, in 2019, a report from Japan’s Ministry of Defense said its Air Defense Force scrambled jets more than 900 times that year to intercept potential incursions into Japanese airspace from Chinese and Russian aircraft. An aging workforce has reduced the pool of available pilots, though.

Unmanned autonomous aircraft could step in. In June 2020, the US Air Force deployed an RQ-4 Global Hawk to help patrol the air space over Japan. It flies at altitudes up to 65,000-feet high and can stay aloft for 30 hours at a time. “An autonomous system such as Global Hawk does not get tired, does not need to return to base for more than a day at a time and can patrol huge swaths of area from a very high altitude,” said Om Prakash, Northrop Grumman Japan, in a press release in November 2020.

Onboard sensors support a broad range of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. In 2015, Japan agreed to purchase three Global Hawks to be delivered in 2022 and supplement its surveillance portfolio, which includes earth-orbiting satellites, sea- and land-based radars, manned patrol planes and reconnaissance pods on supersonic fighters.

Global Hawk could also aid during times of national emergencies. In the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, which caused catastrophic failure at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, a U.S. Air Force Global Hawk flew above the plant to help assess atmospheric radiation. “That operation proved that Global Hawk could be effective even in disaster,” said Prakash.

Patient and Eldercare

Robots in Japan can be big and tough, building bridges and securing borders. But some robots have a tender side. Paro, which looks like a furry baby seal, can be found at elderly care facilities helping to calm residents who have dementia or other cognitive disorders. Developed by researchers at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Paro has five sensors that detect sound, light, touch, heat and posture. Its software learns from the sensory data to recognize people and adapt to a user’s preferences. Some studies have shown that Paro reduces reliance on drugs, improves blood pressure and oxygenation levels and stirs up emotions in patients who may not have expressed them for a long time, reports Wired.

Companion and “care bots” like Paro are rising in popularity in Japan, where the government predicts a shortage of more than 300,000 healthcare workers by 2025. Healthcare spending is also ticking upward and is expected to go from $98,000 per year for inpatient nursing care to $235,000 per year by 2030, as strategy + business reports. Adding robots to the staff could help to keep costs down.

Some robots have more specialized capabilities. Telenoid, a baby-sized device with no legs and tiny arms, can emit sounds, words or songs coming from a distant caregiver or family member. Robear, from RIKEN-SRK Collaboration Center for Human-Interactive Robot Research and Sumitomo Riko Company, lifts patients out of beds and into wheelchairs and can assist a person with standing. Mira Robotics created a robotic butler named Ugo that can wash dishes, fold clothes and vacuum.

It’s clear that Japan’s aging society will put pressure on the government as well as technology firms to find solutions for an aging workforce and rising healthcare costs. Technology alone can’t deal with these challenges. But as autonomous systems advance, they can free up how much time humans spend on repetitive tasks, as well as augment security portfolios and even reduce loneliness.

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