Japan has always been on the forefront of robotics. But the upcoming Tokyo Olympics promises to take it up a notch with the intent of having visitors experience life in “a future universal society.” Expect tablets worn around the neck to translate Japanese to 10 languages, robots carrying your luggage and of course self-driving cars. 

An Interesting Mix of Robotics and Olympics 

Japan has a long history of mixing robotics and the Olympics. The 1964 Olympics introduced the bullet train (Shinkansen) to the world. The return of the Olympics to Japan will showcase the possibilities of robotics in the current world. Beyond the examples already mentioned, expect to see robots picking up athlete’s javelins in the Tokyo Olympics’ stadium, artificial meteor light shows, the next generation of maglev trains, hydrogen-powered vehicles and the use of algae fuel for flights to Japan. And of course, it wouldn’t be Japan if we didn’t have the future of television – with broadcasts in 8K.  

A Case for Robots 

All this investment in robotics isn’t just showmanship. Prime Minister Abe has pledged to triple spending on Robotics. There’s a strong economic case for investing in robots. Japan has a major workforce challenge due to an aging population, so expect the talk around the Tokyo Olympics to address the issues of robots not only replacing retiring workers but also providing care to the elderly. Add to that the nationalistic rhetoric floating around the world against immigration, and what’s left is the strategy of automation. So, Japan is turning this issue into an opportunity to leap into the future. In doing so, it’s providing us with several lessons about using robots. 

  1. Adoption is cultural: Western culture has been fed a diet of scary Terminator robots, whereas Japanese culture (perhaps influenced by Shintoism) has the ability to respect inanimate objects. Is the use of cuddly robots in nursing homes for providing mental stimulation to patients with dementia creepy, or a smart humane idea? This is true in corporate settings too. Familiarity with technology eases adoption issues. 
  2. The reality of job losses due to robots is nuanced: Japan and Korea are relying on robotics to replace an aging workforce. Companies like Foxconn in China who will implement 10000 to 30000 Foxbots have a choice to use labor. Or do they? I honestly don’t know. Is the use of sweat factories any better?
  3. Robotics usage is spreading faster than most people think: We’re lulled into thinking that robots are clunky and not ready because consumer robotics hasn’t reached the C3PO level of sophistication. Not true. Robots can be single-function and not be intelligent. If warehouses in Amazon have more single-function robots than humans, then the issue is no longer robotic capability. 

 Singularity Takes the Gold

Robots are contentious. They can inspire feelings of hope (e.g. nursing home robots), curiosity (e.g. Roomba cleaning robots) or simply aversion (e.g. unrestricted use of facial recognition by some governments). What if reality was nuanced? What if all of the above had some element of truth?