Work, Automation, Cyborgs: Why Japan’s Present is Our Future

Whatever your opinion of Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign, it’s elevated an important conversation we’ve barely just begun in the United States: How automation and robotics will shape the future of work. However, it’s one thing to advocate for a Universal Basic Income, and another to paint a picture of the future we can see ourselves in, where our lives still have meaning. It’s a topic that’s been a key focus of my work at the Institute for the Future, and in our 10 year forecast.

Japan has much inspiration to offer. Because contrary to the country’s technophile stereotype, the Japanese embraced automation not because they saw it as cool or exciting, but out of sheer necessity. This chart above illustrates why.

Japan’s workforce has been aging for decades, forcing the country to subsist on fewer and fewer employees in their physical prime. On my recent creative sabbatical in Japan, the imbalance between old and young on the streets was hard to miss during daily walks — as were the automated solutions. While the US is only recently seeing the slow introduction of semi-automated restaurants, they are everywhere in Japan, as are sophisticated vending machines offering a wide variety of products that might otherwise be sold in (human staffed) retail stores.

While the US population is aging at a slower clip, our fertility rates are starting to fall drastically. It’s expensive to reproduce, and collective uncertainty over economic stability will help create a future in which there are less young people to take over for our retirement-age population.

What we’re seeing in Japan brings some nuance to pessimistic forecasts of automation. Instead of a future in which our workforce will be obsoleted by robotics, it’s just as likely that we will see the introduction of cyborg technology, in which humans work alongside and in concert machines. It’s a theme I’ve been thinking and writing about for the last few years, but my time in Japan helped put the urgency of this solution into sharper focus.

As an example of our cyborg future, consider exoskeletons, like the one depicted above, already in regular use in the factories of Japan. It suggests one solution to both an aging population and the nature of work in an era of pervasive automation: human-driven, robotics-enhanced work which enables skilled laborers to continue bringing their experience to projects beyond traditional retirement age. As people age and want to continue their craft, they can work with machines which enhance safety and agility. (As such, it’s a middle futurist approach to automation.)

But while we are starting to see some highly promising examples of human/machine automation in the United States (more on that below), its widespread adoption isn’t completely assured.

The Cyborg Cultural Gap

Japan’s rapid embrace of automation has happened not just out of necessity, but by a cultural affinity that accelerated it. In the country’s traditional animist beliefs, everything — even tools — are imbued with a life force spirit. This has probably done much to encourage the Japanese to see the machines serving them as benevolent, and non-threatening, helpful.

In the United States, by contrast, we’re still weathering under a fear of automation tinged by its association with the military-industrial complex, and our cautionary 20th century tales of deadly robots resisting our control, and enslaving us. In the final conflict in the first Star Wars trilogy, Luke Skywalker looks down at his robotic hand, and doesn’t see a helpful tool, but instead, a clear sign that he’s losing his soul.

You can see how much this discomfort still exists by our social media reactions, whenever Boston Dynamics releases a new demo video — or for that matter, in frequent stories of security robots being assaulted, or self-driving cars pelted with rocks. In Japan, both in popular fiction and real life, the robots are trying to be kind and helpful; here, the robots are more likely to be seen in the Terminator/Robocop vein — trying to kill us, replace us, or both.

A Human-Scale Approach to Automation

If Japan’s age gap is a sign of our future, the Japanese approach to automation is a model for how we can overcome our trepidation with robotics. By and large, Japan’s robot force are modeled after cartoon animals. For instance, this robot bear designed to assist the elderly, or this small baby seal robot created to assist people with dementia.

While some might dismiss this fixation with cuteness, it’s an extremely savvy design approach. We don’t respect robots when they’re dehumanizing, and we can’t see clear intentions of friendliness. Cartoon animals have consistent, simplified behaviors that are far easier to automate and very rarely need to include the spoken word; not only are they more approachable, they embody shared narratives that connect across generations, ethnic communities, classes. For similar reasons, Japan’s robots usually come in bright, harmonious colors — rarely drab or gray, as is often the default in US industrial design.

You can see the difference in the aesthetic approach to automation in these exoskeletons from US-based company Ekso Bionics (left) and Panasonic (right). The Ekso design is black matte and deadly serious, evoking a Robocop/space marine quality. Panasonic’s solution is decidedly cute, with cheerful green and purple colors. It’s not only more approachable, it’s bright, so people can see you wearing it from far away. Cuter is safer.

Amazon has been rolling out a model for automation that follows the Japanese approach more closely. After hitting the limits of what both traditional robotics and exhausted humans could do, the Internet retail giant introduced a line of robots designed to work hand-in-hand with their employees:

Amazon’s delivery robots are notably bright orange, and reminiscent of the friendly cartoon cars from the Pixar movies. Working alongside humans, they act as multipliers for human-driven work.

Just as Japan automated out of necessity, we will need to automate more and more out of necessity. The question of what we automate, and what remains human, becomes ever more crucial.

I look forward to your own answers and feedback on Twitter. In future posts, we’ll discuss the stark differences between sci-fi automation and genuine automation, and consider design solutions to the non-spaces problem in the workplace.