Japan debates robot promise of a 'brave new world'

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A brave new world where intelligent robots can run factories without human help, dig for coal, sow crops, mine valuable seabed minerals, and even milk cows.

Is this a future to be welcomed or feared?

In Japan, it is a question of more than academic interest. Such a society could develop here during the 1980s. A serious debate is just beginning on whether it is really the life Japanese want to live.

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This country leads the robot revolution with an estimated 70 percent of the world's current population of sophisticated industrial machines. They are pounding away around the clock at every conceivable industrial task, in both ultramodern, virtually dehumanized electronics and car assembly plants to grubby backyard sheds turning out humble plastic components for toys.

Japanese businesses say there is no alternative to such automation if they are to stay ahead of formidable Asian rivals like South Korea, Taiwan and China, whose strong point is abundant, hard-working, low-wage labor -- something Japan is losing fast.

Wages have gone up 2.5 times in the past 10 years, but machines are actually getting cheaper all the time.

Humans are still needed, even if only to tend the robots when they break down , but not as many as before.

The Industrial Robot Association says: ''This year, development of intelligent robots with sensors for touch, vision, and hearing will get into full swing.'

Many companies are working on sensors enabling the machines to move around in response to human voice commands.

Kanji Yonemoto, executive director of the association says: ''If robots develop as planned, there will be a type to take care of physically handicapped people and aged hospital patients and guide the blind.

''From 1985 to 1990, robots will come into use on a massive scale in spraying insecticide on farms, spreading fertilizer, planting crops, cutting lumber, inspecting and packing eggs, and milking cows.''

Mr. Yonemoto argues robots will help create a better society by taking over dangerous, dirty factory jobs today's better-educated young workers do not want.

Hazards associated with mining coal would be a thing of the past if machines replaced miners underground, he says.

Robots could also operate on the ocean floor, running fish farms, for example.

No one disputes that these are welcome applications of the robot revolution. But the average worker is having second thoughts about the machines because of the pace at which they are gobbling up jobs in industry.

There are currently 70,000 ''robots'' in operation here, and the number is growing an average rate of 20,000 a year. So far there has been little effect on the unemployment rate - stable at 1.2 million, or around 2 percent of the work force.

Even if their jobs disappear, Japanese workers normally aren't fired or laid off, as this would damage a company's reputation. At major corporations, laid-off workers are retrained for new jobs, shifted to subsidiary companies or kept as a labor pool for use as business expands.

But even a fast-growing, highly profitable firm like computermaker Nippon Electric was only able to preserve its spotless image because some 5,000 of 8, 600 workers who lost their jobs to robots in the past six years chose to quit for one reason or another (mainly early retirement with a ''golden handshake'').

Dismissal is the only answer for the myriad of small backyard concerns, who can now also join the rush to robots by renting them for as little as $170 a month.

A recent survey of 3,000 workers found 67 percent expected automation would inevitably lead to major unemployment eventually. And the report late last year that a robot under repair had killed a worker has raised fears about the safety of the new walking, talking, seeing machines.

Says Inchiro Shioji, president of the Federation of Japan Automobile Workers' Unions: ''We cooperated with automation before because it seemed in our members' interests. Now I'm not so sure.''

With auto manufacturers in the forefront of robotization, Mr. Shioji recently asked for close consultations between management and labor before any more machines are installed.

Other labor federations too are starting to take a long, hard look at the ultimate impact of automation on Japan's vaunted lifetime employment system.

They are backed by Tokyo University Professor Tetsuo Ihara, who has made detailed studies of the robot issue. He is adamant that the machines are a serious unemployment threat, adding: ''The only answer is a tax on each robot to finance workers' unemployment insurance and pension schemes for replaced workers.''

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