Future of Britain? Look at Japan

Robots are barely even news anymore.

In the same way that a story about a suicide bombing in Iraq doesn’t shock you like it used to, the news that robots are taking our jobs is all a bit passé by now.

We get it: humans are puny, robots are mighty. This time next year we’ll be drinking at midday, collecting our universal basic income, waiting for our robot butlers to realise how useless we are.

It makes for fun worst-case scenario headlines; but what’s the real effect of robotics? How will our lives actually look in the near-term?

Japan is Britain – if Britain worked

Brits interested in the future of their country could do a lot worse than looking to Japan.

In many ways, our countries are similar. Both are rich, temperate, island nations with ageing populations. Both face similar problems of climate, economy and demographics. In one crucial area, though, the Japanese are streets ahead.

Any investors in robotics – including those who follow our Frontier Tech Investor portfolio – will know that the robotics market is dominated by companies listed in Tokyo. As well as major companies focused on robotics, Japan’s stockmarket lists a number of diversified giants with major interests in the sector. It’s a uniquely mature market – and that has ramifications for the Japanese people, as well as investors.

In the techno-future, waiters are first against the wall

Manual labour is often mooted as the most obvious candidate for robot replacement. Fair enough, robots can use machinery with more strength and precision than humans can. But essentially human jobs – customer-facing service roles – might be automated just as soon.

When did you last leave a restaurant having had a markedly better time because of the service? Maybe I’m being a grouch, but I can’t think of a time that speaking to a person I didn’t choose to speak to improved a meal out.

The Japanese understand. Automatic catering is absolutely normal there. In fact, unless you go out of your way to find an upmarket restaurant, your chances of interfacing with an actual bag of flesh and bones is relatively limited. Most restaurants consist of vending machine-style control panels; customers choose and pay for their meals in a few seconds, and only have to talk to staff to say “thanks”, if they want to.

If they’re really lucky, their meal will be brought by an automated waiting system. I had the distinctly robotic pleasure of being served by a plain steel tray on rails several times in Japan. Call me a misanthrope, but robots do it better.

An automated workforce has side-effects – and they’re all good

Tokyo is meant to be prohibitively expensive – but if you’ve ever paid (admittedly shocking) London prices for goods and services, a trip there will probably leave you pleasantly surprised. As robotics has trickled down from university labs to the city streets, consumers have reaped the rewards.

Cost-saving drives automation. It’s cheaper to buy a £10,000 robot than to pay an employee for a year. And if a restaurant is spending less on its wage bill, it can lower its prices. Food in Japan, which has a fraction of the arable land available in Britain, should be much more expensive than it is here. In reality, eating out three times a day is common.

That’s quite some difference in lifestyle. And, unless you’re rather a better cook than I am, it would make quite a difference to your quality of life. That’s the true face of robotics. Robots ought to make life easier and more enjoyable. In Japan, they already do.

Robotics: the indirect benefits of “modern convenience”

I’ve spoken a little about the visible benefits of robotics, but I think robots bring intangible benefits to society at all levels. I’m basing that inkling on a hundred-year-old theory that robotics is giving new life.

Nineteenth century architect Louis H. Gibson defined modern conveniences as “those arrangements and appliances which make it possible for people to live comfortably in a larger house, without seriously increasing the cares which they had in a smaller one”. If you’ll allow me to resituate his words, they make for a pretty good analogy on the purpose of robotics.

In an economy struggling for growth, robotics provides a lifeline. Investment in the sector allows industry to do more with less. Growth becomes significantly easier when a company owner doesn’t have to worry about providing optimal conditions for a growing workforce.

Bad news for those workers who lose their jobs, no doubt. But those who stay in employment will benefit from a slicker, more streamlined economy.

Back to Japan, and time to dispel another myth.

It’s a widely accepted, innocent-ish stereotype: the Japanese work too damn hard. Waking up at the crack of dawn, commuting in each other’s sweaty armpits, Japan’s white-collar workforce go till they drop. So ingrained is the cult of hard work that falling asleep on the job is seen as a sign of sterling commitment to the cause. It’s easy to laugh at a culture that pushes its employees that hard. But we in the West are looking at it the wrong way.

The low-friction lifestyle that a tech-heavy society encourages is energising. It’s easier to focus your energy on mentally demanding tasks when you’re less worn down by the everyday noise of human interaction. Ordering from a machine – or doing your banking through a humanoid robot that can read your expression – is so much less exhausting than it is with humans. No wonder the Japanese work 18-hour days without thinking twice. Any number of their needs and desires are automated, catered for by an invisible workforce.

The bottom line: when’s Japan going to grow?

So, if the Japanese have mastered the robot slipstream, why is the country’s economy stagnant? That’s a complex question, and one better answered in Capital & Conflict. I’ve given you my opinion on what Japan’s doing right; no doubt Dan and Nick have plenty to say about where Abenomics is going wrong.

I will leave you with just one macro theory – and it’s one I’ve written about before.

Technological revolution doesn’t lead to overnight growth. When you modernise an economy, you’re messing with a number of complex feedback loops. Replacing people with robots is not a panacea – it’s the start of a long and difficult process. Japan’s robot revolution will reap dividends, but only when its social and monetary policy is as modern as its tech. That might well mean a dalliance with universal basic income – more on that another time.

For now, keep an eye on Japan. Keep an eye on the Nikkei, but more generally, keep an eye on the younger, more dynamic robotics companies that are paving the way for an economic rejuvenation. Then, ask yourself how Britain might benefit from the same remedy.

If the UK can learn the lessons of the Japanese robot revolution, it might even manage the transition more smoothly. Decent economic growth turbocharged by labour-saving technology could do even more for Britain’s economy than it does for Japan’s.

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Category: Robotics

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