Robots could fill nearly half of all jobs in Japan within 20 years, study says

Amid Japan's rapidly-aging population, robots could potentially free up workers from repetitive tasks to pursue more creative jobs, researchers say.

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP/File
A receptionist dinosaur robot greets a hotel employee demonstrating how to check in for the media at the Henn na Hotel or Weird Hotel, in Sasebo, southwestern Japan in July. A new report released Wednesday finds that 49 percent of all jobs could be replaced by robots in Japan by 2035.

Robots may take over nearly half of all jobs in Japan by 2035, new research has found, with jobs as receptionists, taxi drivers, security guards, and the service industry particularly susceptible to being replaced by computer-controlled technology.

A report released on Wednesday by the Nomura Research Institute found that as much as 49 percent of the country’s jobs now performed by humans could be replaced by robots within the next 10 to 20 years.

That compares to 47 percent in the US and 35 percent in the UK. The reason for the discrepancy, lead researcher Yumi Wakao says, is because many data-inputting jobs that are still done by humans in Japan were now performed by robots in the UK.

But rather than sparking fears, especially among Japan’s fast-aging population, Ms. Wakao says the research is intended to show that robots could focus on jobs involving more repetitive tasks, while freeing up more space for humans to do jobs that require creativity, compassion, and analyzing abstract thoughts, which robots would have difficulty performing.

“Service jobs that require creativity, communication, empathy, or negotiation will be hard to replace with computerization,” she told Motherboard. “In the report, the researchers comment that the Japanese are good at jobs in these industries, and that if other sectors could be automated, it would free more people to do such jobs.”

Making this switch would require some improvements in infrastructure to support a large number of robot workers, she adds, noting that “this is only a hypothetical technical calculation. It doesn’t take into account social factors.”

But unlike other countries, Japan has been supportive of efforts to increase robotic workers, such as a hotel that opened in July featuring robotic check-in clerks, including a bizarre robotic velociraptor.

The Henn-na ("weird") Hotel, which is located in a theme park in Southern Japan, also features a robotic arm that stores customers' luggage in drawers and uses facial recognition instead of keys or cards to unlock the hotel rooms.

The Nomura study is built on research from 2013 by Michael Osborne of Oxford University, showing that 47 percent of jobs in the US and 35 percent in the UK could be computerized because of advances in machine learning and robotics. He also collaborated on the Japanese study.

After reviewing more than 700 types of jobs, Professor Osborne and colleague Carl Benedikt Frey wrote, in a first wave of advancing technology, “We find that most workers in transportation and logistics occupations, together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers, and labor in production occupations, are likely to be substituted by computer capital.”

The development of self-driving cars once thought impossible and the use of big data to replace traditional data entry positions are driving this shift, they added.

But, as Motherboard notes, Japan’s expanding investment in robotics comes as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has threatened to cut funding for liberal arts courses even as he has endorsed a “robot revolution” to increase Japan’s once-dominant standing in the technology industry, raising questions about whether the newly created jobs will be truly "creative."

Wakao of the Nomura Institute strikes a more cautionary note on the report’s findings, noting that making the switch to an army of robotic workers would require some improvements in infrastructure.

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