Wednesday, February 25, 2009

CBC's "Send in the Robots"

Gotta love the news stories we get in Canada!

Last month, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation did this fascinating report on Japan's attempts to replace it aging workforce with robots. "Mighty Atom" Astro Boy is specifically mentioned as a reason why Japan loves robots so much. It's a unique problem that Japan faces, and one has to wonder just what the future of this particular solution holds.

Thanks to Andrew for bringing this interesting video to my attention. You can watch it uncut and in high quality for yourself on the CBC website, but I have also uploaded it onto YouTube in two parts for archival purposes.

Part 1

Part 2

There are also some field notes about the piece which you can read on the CBC website or by clicking the link below for an archived version.

Field Notes by Saša Petricic

"Send in the Robots" by videojournalist Saša Petricic
January 30, 2009

Slowly, deliberately, Japan plans to replace its people with robots.

It populated its factories with long-armed machines long ago to perform menial, repetitive tasks... to build TVs or microwaves or cars. That was in the name of efficiency.

Now, though, the country is facing an actual shortage of people. Since 2006, Japan's population has been dropping, its workforce dangerously hollowed out by old age. As nursing homes replace factories for more and more Japanese, their country has two choices: to rely on immigrants for temporary labour the way many industrial countries do, including the US and Canada. Or, to find a technological solution.

This being Japan, with a strong aversion to foreign influences and evils, and an equally powerful love of gadgets, it has chosen the latter. So today, from Kyoto to Kobe, Osaka to Tokyo, engineers are scrambling to build the perfect android. To make robots that do household chores, keep the young and the elderly company, welcome guests, even sing and dance. Government subsidies push the effort along.

The technical challenges are huge. Gears and cogs are too bulky, batteries don't last long enough, the perfect fit, feel and attitude for lifelike and effective robot workers remain elusive.

And time is quickly running out for this technological answer to succeed. Japan needs new workers now - hundreds of thousands of them. The most optimistic robot-makers don't see their creations being ready to help the economy for at least three to five years. It seems to be a plan that's failed even before it gets off the ground.

Of course, the irony is that the workers Japanese scientists are struggling to create already exist... they're available today in exactly the right shapes and sizes, with a familiar interface: human workers, ready and able - in surplus even - around the globe.

Posted by The National on February 2, 2009 10:17 AM |