Over one million industrial robots are currently toiling around the world, most of them in Japan. There are 295 of these mechanized workers for every 10,000 manufacturing Japanese – a robot density almost 10 times the world average, more than triple that of the U.S. (84) and nearly six times more than Europe (50).
Whereas robots in the West are mainly used for industrial and military applications, they have long found their way into the fabric of Japanese society. Some prototypes can even prepare sushi and pancakes. Robots are also entertaining children, replacing pets and gathering oceanographic data in the form of mechanized snappers.
KEIKO, a female humanoid, simulates neurological disorders for students at Gifu University’s Graduate School of Medicine. HAL-5, a robot suit sold by Tsukuba-based venture Cyberdyne helps paralyzed people walk by converting brain signals into motion. A Fuji Heavy Industries robot autonomously uses elevators to change floors and clean corridors in skyscrapers. The list could go on and on.
These robots are being used right here and now, with even more of the electromechanical marvels scheduled to join our society very soon. According to a prediction by the Japanese government, the domestic robot industry will be worth $67 billion in 2025. And no other country seems to be able to keep up. North America-based companies sold industrial robots worth $979.4 million in 2008, while the Japan Robot Association says the domestic market for those machines is currently sized at about $6.7 billion. The best-known American player in the industry is iRobot, maker of the autonomous vacuum cleaner Roomba. The company reported $307 million in revenue last year and successfully sells their Roombas in Tokyo’s department stores, too.
But how did Japan come to attain such a dominant position in the field of robotics?
Most of the theories attempting to shine light on this phenomenon center on religion, society and culture. Shintoism, Japan’s homegrown, animist faith, assumes even inanimate objects can possess a transcendent spirit. As a consequence, robots with a “personality” aren’t viewed as threatening as they are in monotheist religions that dictate that no one should try to play god by creating human-like machines. Socially, the acceptance of robots could partly be explained by their potential to help avoid awkward human interactions. Something as simple as asking someone for directions, for example, might lead to an embarrassing situation for both parties – so why not ask a friendly machine to maintain harmony?
Pop culture plays an important part, too, as robots have been heroes in Japanese manga, anime and video games for decades. Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai, the mastermind behind HAL-5, regularly says his inspiration came from reading the cyborg manga “Atom Boy” during his childhood. Another reason for Japan’s love of robots may lie in the long tradition of skillful craftsmanship many people see reflected in the country’s robotics sector today. The Karakuri Ningyo, a tea-carrying mechanized puppet widely regarded to be the first Japanese “robot,” was constructed as early as the 17th century. And in sharp contrast to the West, many universities all over Japan today give their students the chance to research, build and commercialize robots in special robotics facilities.
But perhaps the most important factor is Japan’s strategic economic planning in this field, which is heavily influenced by demographic development. The government actively supports private companies to make sure Japan keeps spearheading the robotics industry, one of its key sectors targeted for promotion. To name just a few initiatives: In 2006, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry set aside over 2 billion yen in its 2007 budget to support R&D in robotics. At the same time, it established the so-called Robot Award competition that now takes place every year to promote R&D in universities and companies. This August, Japan started developing legally-binding standards for the safety of home-use robots. Specific projects deemed important for the nation’s future are being handpicked as well. For example, most of the $15 million it took to develop Paro, a therapeutic robot baby harp seal for use in nursing homes, came from the Japanese taxpayers.
The government makes no secret that it sees intelligent robots playing a key role in coping with the rapidly aging population. In 2007, the Japanese government announced that it wants to see one million industrial robots installed in the country by 2025. It seems not immigrants but machines will be employed to solve the problems that come with the country’s shrinking workforce. And the government has already done the math: When that workforce of one million robots is in place, they are calculated to be as efficient as ten million human workers. Whether this scenario becomes reality or not, Japan’s robotics revolution surely has just begun.
Dr. Serkan Toto is a Tokyo-based web industry consultant and writer for American online media network TechCrunch.