Letting Robots Perform Human Tasks: Are They Overhyped in Japan?
Thu, October 21, 2021

Letting Robots Perform Human Tasks: Are They Overhyped in Japan?

The Executive Summary World Robotics 2019: Industrial Robots report published by professional non-profit organization International Federation of Robotics (IFR) states that global robot installations rose by 6% to 442,271 units, with a value of $16.5 billion in 2018 / Photo by: yarruta via 123RF

 

The Executive Summary World Robotics 2019: Industrial Robots report published by professional non-profit organization International Federation of Robotics (IFR) states that global robot installations rose by 6% to 442,271 units, with a value of $16.5 billion in 2018. The operational stock of robots was 2,439,543 units. 

The automotive industry remains the largest consumer of robots with 30% of total installations, with electronics/electric following behind at 25%, metal and machinery (10%), plastics and chemical products (5%), and food and beverages (3%). 

Asia is the largest industrial robot market with a total of 283,080 units installed in 2018, a 1% increase a year prior. From 2013 to 2018, annual robot installations increased by 23% on average every year.  

Japan vs. Other Countries 

The three largest Asian markets are China, South Korea, and Japan. Installations in China (154,032 units in 2018; -1%) and the Republic of Korea (37,807 units in 2018; -5%) decreased. In China, its industrial robot market is at 36% in 2017 and 2018, installing 156,176 units in 2017. 

South Korea’s industrial robot market peaked at 41,373 units in 2016, with the number of units declining as its electronics industry suffered in 2018. Still, installations have grown by 12% on average per year since 2013. 

However, installations in Japan (55,240 units; +21%) skyrocketed. Since 2013, its average annual growth rate has been 17%, which is commendable for a country that has a high level of automation in industrial production. 

Japan’s History With Robots

In the 1970s, Japan had used robots in car factories, making it an early adopter of robotics, as said by Motoko Rich of New York City-based newspaper The New York Times. Hiroshi Fujiwara wrote for the IFR that robots are seen positively in Japan as manga and animation influenced people’s interests in robotics. In fact, most of them are depicted as friends or allies of children. 

For example, Doraemon, a blue robot cat, stars in a manga series and is one of Japan’s longest-running TV shows. Astro Boy— know as Tetsuwan Atomu in the country— is a superhero in manga, TV, and movies who fights for peace between robots and humans. Apart from the influence of media, there are also economic and societal aspects associated with Japan’s interest in robotics. This can be attributed to the country’s rapid growth in the automotive industry, thereby influencing its robotics sector. 

Further, labor shortages drive the demand for robots. Japan’s working-age population has decreased by 13% from the peak in 1995 to 75.96 million in 2017. Hence, the widespread adoption of robots is touted as one of the solutions to address labor shortages, affecting various sectors of the country. 

Hiroshi Fujiwara wrote for the IFR that robots are seen positively in Japan as manga and animation influenced people’s interests in robotics. In fact, most of them are depicted as friends or allies of children / Photo by: CHIH HSIEN HANG via 123RF

 

Having Robots Do the Work of Humans Is No Easy Feat

Removing the tiny eyes that dot the potatoes is a dull, time-consuming, and repetitive task. It’s perfect for robots considering that there is labor scarcity in Japan. But it’s not easy. For example, when a food processing plant that produces potato salad and stews in Hokkaido tested a robot prototype to remove the potatoes’ eyes, the unit was not prepared to perform the task. 

It turned out that the robot’s camera sensors were not sensitive enough to identify each and every eye. Human hands can roll a potato in every direction, but robots can only do so in one axis. Hence, the robot failed to dig out the blemishes on potatoes, which are toxic to humans. Akihito Shibayama, a factory manager at Yamazaki Group, which is responsible for operating the plan in Asahikawa, noted, “Fundamentally, it could not do the work to the standard of humans.” 

This is why companies are struggling to outsource human tasks to machines. They can “perform simple tasks but not tasks that require judgment or the ability to evaluate a change in a situation,” stated Toshiya Okuma, associate director of global strategy in the robot business division of Kawasaki Heavy Industries. 

While robots in media played a significant role in Japan’s interest in robotics, businesses found that having robots undertake sophisticated tasks are costlier than letting human workers accomplish them. Hence, many of the tasks at the factory in Asahikawa—where 60% of the work is automated— still require human touch. For instance, workers peel pumpkins to enhance the flavor of the stew. Meanwhile, the robots can’t determine how much skin to peel off. 

Robots have also been deployed in other sectors. In the hospitality industry, a hotel staffed by androids in Southern Japan prompted it to remove its robots after guests complained that the units were not good at hospitality. 

Robots are Overhyped

“I think the Japanese have been more innovative in thinking about applications of robotics in everyday life.” said Jennifer Robertson, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan and author of “Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family and the Japanese Nation. Unfortunately, the hype surrounding robots made the Japanese blind to reality, she added. 

Robots help address Japan’s labor shortages, but having machines undertake human tasks is a lot harder than people think. Technical issues can happen and robots may not have the required human touch. Unlike in other countries, robots are looked upon favorably in Japan but they are clearly overhyped. 

Unlike in other countries, robots are looked upon favorably in Japan but they are clearly overhyped / Photo by: Kittipong Jirasukhanont via 123RF