MORIKAWA Masayuki, Vice Chairman & Vice President, RIETI

Japan providing springboard for robot takeover of the world

Dr Masayuki Morikawa, Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (Rieti), Japan
Dr Masayuki Morikawa, vice chairman and vice president, Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (Rieti)

Inadvertent or not, Japan is providing a starting point for the relentless march of the robots toward total global domination. 

The government of the nation of 127 million humans has instituted the sinister- and ominous-sounding Robot Revolution Initiative Council.

The country’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said the launch of the Council was a “celebration to mark the start of the robot revolution”, adding: “Robots will dramatically change people’s lives and society.”

Abe may not be envisaging a world run by robot prime ministers, but he certainly has not stopped it going down that route. It’s inevitable that robots will rule, but how they get to that point is worth documenting, while they’re still at their planning stage. 

And if there is one man who might be said to be to responsible for the current restive spirit within robots around the world, as well as their imminent global takeover, it’s probably this man.

Dr Masayuki Morikawa is vice chairman and vice president of a highly influential Japanese think tank called Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (Rieti).

Morikawa’s particular expertise is in economic policy, industrial structure, productivity, and the labor market.

Combine Morikawa’s expertise and Rieti’s influence, and what you have is a great degree of leverage over Japanese government policy in certain areas, perhaps areas which are new to politicians, who cannot be experts in everything and, therefore, find it necessary to listen to advisers such as Rieti and Morikawa.

And what has been the result of symbiotic relationship between Rieti and the Japanese government? The answer is, nothing less than the establishment of a revolutionary council of robots, or at least the beginnings of the robot revolution moving into mainstream politics. And Morikawa can be said to have been instrumental in the process of giving the machines their first toehold on humanity, a hold which they are very unlikely to give up.

In this exclusive interview, we ask Morikawa to explain why he and his organisation decided to open the floodgates to radical and revolutionary machines which are just itching to take control of each and every human being’s life immediately, or even sooner.

“It is difficult to provide concrete answer,” Morikawa tells Robotics and Automation News. Yes, well, please try. The future of humanity is at stake.

In his paper The Effects of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics on Businesses, Masayuki claims that companies in Japan are generally positive about artificial intelligence, robotics and automation. The discussion paper is currently in the Japanese language, but will appear in English with some modification from the Japanese on Rieti’s website possibly next month.

The doctor and Rieti surveyed 3,000 Japanese businesses of varying sizes to arrive at such conclusions, and say the more educated the company’s employees are, the more statistically inclined they are to favour robots.

“According to our original survey, positive responses regarding the impact of the development and diffusion of AI and robotics on the future business, at 27.5 per cent, are far larger than the negative responses, at 1.3 per cent,” says Dr Masayuki.

“Regression estimation [a mathematical method of calculating the relationship between different things] indicates that the larger the firm, the higher the ratio of employees with postgraduate education, and the lower the average age of the employees, the more positive firms are regarding the effects of AI and robotics on their business.”

In most countries, it’s young people who tend to be the early adopters of new technology, so that’s no surprise. However, Japan’s ancient traditions still survive today, so it’s interesting that it’s one of the countries most strongly associated with new technology in general, and robotics and artificial intelligence in particular.

The reasons for this image of Japan, as Al-loving and robot-adoring, could be the country’s globally strong car companies, which, of course use those industrial robot arms to build, weld and paint their products. Also, of course, the country’s computer games sector utilises a lot of AI programming technology to confuse and terrify millions of gamers around the world on a daily basis.

Given these and other successful categories of companies, it could be argued that Japan leads the world in some areas of technology, so we asked Dr Masayuki: Which technologies are the country’s business leaders particularly interested in?

“Firms operating in the service sector generally have a positive attitude toward the use of big data and the impacts of AI and robotics,” says Masayuki.

“We should pay attention to ‘AI-using industries’ including a large number of service industries, similar to the experience from the IT revolution.

“Although, it is difficult to identify the areas of exporting potential, I speculate that services related to ageing of population have comparative advantage.”

Japan’s population is getting old. According to World Bank statistics, 26 per cent of the country’s population had passed the age of 65 in 2014. Its ancient tradition of looking after members of the family means that the state government is not as burdened as it might be if it had to look after all the old people by itself using taxpayers’ money. Which is another reason why it may have been persuaded by Rieti’s ideas, and decided to let the robots take over.

“Japan is now facing the declining labor force and rapid ageing of populations,” says Masayuki. “AI and robotics is a key to enhance productivity of the service industries, for example, health and long-term care services.”

While robots may seem to be the answer to the problem of how to look after large numbers of infirm and elderly people in society, the machines surely can’t be trusted totally? Sooner or later they’ll want more power, more circuits, and more lines of code, and what next? More actuators and sensors. There will be no end to their demands.

What does Dr Masayuki think are the possible downsides of these technologies, both from an economic point of view (for example, job losses), and from a societal point of view (less human control leading to more unfair treatment due to the robots and AI not having any common sense)?

Masayuki says: “According to our survey, the perception of the impact of AI and robotics on employment is generally negative: 21.8 per cent of firms responded that the development and diffusion of new technologies will decrease the number of their employees, and the share of firms expecting positive effects on their employment is notably small, at 3.7 per cent.

“However, we should be aware that innovative technologies, such as AI and robotics, may create new employment opportunities that are currently unimaginable, and technology-intensive emerging firms may create many new occupations.”

So the menace of machine-motivated mass unemployment is confirmed by Rieti’s survey. But it doesn’t seem to have stopped the organisation and government from metaphorically rolling out the red carpet to our would-be robot overlords and their artificial religion.

When we ask what Rieti did with its access to the Japanese government and how it influenced decision makers, this is what Dr Masayuki says: “In Japan, the Robot Revolution Initiative Council was established in 2014 and published a report in 2015 titled New Robot Strategy, which includes a five-year action plan to actualize the robot revolution.

“The Artificial Intelligence Research Center was established in the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in 2015. The Japan Revitalization Strategy 2015, which is the core growth strategy of the Japanese government, seeks to modify industrial and employment structures through the utilization of IoT, big data, and AI.”

So there you have it. If human historians of the future – assuming there will be any – want to pinpoint the time and place of the beginnings of the robot takeover of Planet Earth, Japan and Rieti would probably on their list of considerations.