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Japan increasingly turning to robots as ‘human’ resource

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Japan’s declining birth rate has forced some businesses to utilise robots and turn to AI (artificial intelligence).

Tokyo, January 20, 2017: The Henn na Hotel, opened in 2015 in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, has been certified by Guinness World Records as the first hotel to be staffed by robots.

Check-in and check-out procedures are handled by robots, including a humanoid bot and two in the shape of a dinosaur. Other robots carry guests’ baggage and clean the windows.

General Manager Takeyoshi Oe said, “It’s increasingly difficult to secure young human resources due to the declining birth rate, so the key from now is utilising robots and AI [artificial intelligence].”

A total of 194 robots, of 22 different kinds, work in the hotel’s 114 rooms. Oe said only eight human beings work behind the scenes. The shrinking size of the working generations will affect Japan’s future, and may also shake the foundations of social welfare schemes.

The government will compile a concrete plan for work-style reform by the end of this fiscal year. It is urgent to introduce measures such as correcting the practice of long working hours and improving non-regular employees’ working conditions, in order to boost the productivity of limited human resources and maintain the vitality of society.

This year, I’m paying special attention to the job sectors of nursing care for the elderly and childcare, in which labour shortages have already become serious social problems. Securing human resources in these sectors will be the foundation for more active roles for women, and balancing work and family life. Doing so is expected to contribute to economic growth.

Some believe foreign workers should be utilised to cope with labour shortages.

In the sector of elderly nursing care, foreign technical interns will arrive in Japan by the end of this year at the earliest. Workplace officials have high expectations, but there are also strong concerns, as the job involves taking care of people. The use of foreign workers is not envisioned for the childcare sector.

So how about utilising robots, as at the Nagasaki hotel?

According to a joint international research released by Nomura Research Institute in 2015, robots or AI programmes will be able to take over in about 10 to 20 years about half of the jobs now done by workers in Japan.

Robots have appeared that move people into wheelchairs for nursing care workers with back pain, and communication robots that play with children.

But nursing care staff and licensed nursery school teachers are among 100 job categories that are seen to be less likely to be taken over by robots or AI. “In general, jobs needing creativity and cooperativeness will be hard to take over,” a research institute official said.

Jobs in which workers have to gauge other people’s thinking and consider how to help care recipients grow or become self-reliant certainly need high-levels of creativity and humanity.

They’re appealing jobs but wages are low, leading to labour shortages. Isn’t this because nursing care for the elderly and childcare are considered easy jobs that anybody could do?

In fact, workers in these sectors say they also have to clean rooms and remove snow. They make me feel it’s necessary to distinguish core work requiring high-level expertise from peripheral work, to make the expertise more visible, and boost role-sharing in peripheral works through the use of a diverse range of workers and robots.

This year, the government is scheduled to raise the wages of nursing care staff for the elderly by 10,000 yen (US$88) a month per person, and of childcare nursery staff by an amount equivalent to up to 46,000 yen ($400) a month per person.

However, they also need measures to make their expertise visible.

The trend toward labour shortages cannot be changed immediately. But a new horizon will emerge through the full utilisation of robots and other new technologies, and by making progress in clarifying expertise and role-sharing in workplaces, so that limited human resources can be better utilised as human assets.

Can Japan take the first step toward a society in which people will feel less anxiety about their golden years and child-rearing? This point should be closely watched this year.