Will Robotics Transform Japan? Credit: Image credit: Stefano Tinti / Shutterstock.com
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Will Robotics Transform Japan?

If you start talking about robots (excluding science fiction), you’re probably going to be mentioning Japan—and for good reasons. Japan was the first country to truly delve into robotics research several decades ago, and since then they’ve remained the predominant force in the field’s research and manufacturing sectors: for the past 40 years they’ve been responsible for producing the vast majority of the world’s robots. Recently the balance has been shifting, and it may not be long before we start looking at South Korea, China, Germany, or even the US for the cutting edge of robotic innovation. Japan, however, is facing its challengers head-on.  

While Japan’s “lost decade” (which in reality extends from about 1991-2010, but “The Lost 20 Years” is less catchy) hit their economy hard and stunted technological growth, the country is gearing up again in an attempt to make up for lost time—and robots are part of the plan. Prime Minister Abe announced this past June that the government would be investing heavily in robotics research and development. The goal, says Abe, is to triple the robotics market to 2.4 trillion yen ($24 billion USD). In the official presentation the move was called “A Robot Revolution” with the intent of recreating Japan’s status as a “technological frontier.”

While it may sound like a secret order of scientists and/or machines bent on world domination, the Robot Revolution Realization Council is actually the body created to facilitate this progress—it had its first meeting on on October 16th. Abe, during the discussion, gave this definition of its mission: to “work out a strategy for using robots as the key means to solve labor shortages amid the declining birthrate and aging population, low productivity of the services sector and other challenges plaguing Japan and for developing the robot industry into a growth sector to explore global markets.”

In other words, the Prime Minister believes that robots will be significant to the future of Japan—but they, and Japan as a whole, face some significant challenges, even going beyond the labor shortages and population decline that Abe mentioned. This may largely be attributed to the fact that its companies have not globalized well, leading to such cheery situations as a fairly isolationist research environment; low international cooperation in the technology sector; the largest public debt (227.2% of GDP) in the world; and a real danger of being overtaken by international competition, particularly from The Republic of Korea, who directly responded to Japan’s robotics announcement by announcing their own $2.69 billion USD robotics investment.

All is not lost, however: the initial plan has provisions to fix some of the most vital problems. By the end of 2014 the council will have produced a scheme that encourages cooperation between universities and businesses—something the Japanese tech sector lost in its slump—and will hopefully create an environment more attractive to researchers. Japan’s restrictive trade secret laws are also looking at a reform, and government leaders are hoping that sufficiently developed robotics will be able to compensate for the population decline by replacing some human workers with mechanical ones. Japan desperately needs to make itself more attractive in most of these areas, as the loss of groundbreaking company Schaft to Google due to the lack of Japanese investors’ support demonstrates.

So what will it take for Japan to head up the world robotics market? It certainly seems as if they’re in for an uphill struggle, not only to get out of their decades-long economic flounderings, but to put themselves on the front line of a field that could be compared to the computing industry in the 1960s and 70s. It’s hardly a long shot, though: there is a lot of room for someone to become the economic and technological shaper of the robotics industry. At the moment it’s a market that desperately needs a breakthrough—an Apple, if you will—in both the industrial and service sectors. Currently, 85% of Japan’s robots are working in factories, but in order to move into service industries and to create robots that can cooperate with humans (something that will be necessary if they are to begin moving into vacant human jobs, and also to prevent their inevitable sentience and revolt) a standard will need to be set that takes robots from moderately expensive novelties and rote labor mechanisms to practical, flexible investments.

And that something may very well be on the horizon. Robotics is currently the field with the third-highest patent rate in the world, according to the U.K Intellectual Property Office, and Japan is leading the pack at 31% of all robotics patents. Despite their fragmented research infrastructure, Japan has been the world power in robotics for a long time and still claims the title of being the world’s third largest economy, and while other countries are just entering the game, they have the scale that comes with being well-entrenched.

Unfortunately, the lack of communication between researchers, industry, and companies often prevents these patents from being usefully applied. In fact, the 2011 Fukushima incident was handled using US robots, and Japanese company Softbank acquired French company Aldebaran for robotics work—not a Japanese firm . Abe’s policies are directly targeting this issue, attempting to construct a system of collaboration and property protection to create safeguards and incentives for researchers and companies.

So if Japan is going to make a splash in the industry, they need to improve their ability to bring products to market—and they know it. Bruno Maisonnier, CEO of Aldebaran, summed it up well when he said to the Financial Times: “Honda makes an impressive robot, but where can I buy it?” Japan’s proficiency at developing hardware and pieces of technology is well-documented, but they have not yet created a stable network that they can fit their gadgets into.

The rocky road for Japan’s robots (uneven terrain is their weakness) could get a lot smoother in the near future, though, depending largely on how well Abe’s robotics council handles things. The five-year plan that the council is due to develop by the end of 2014, could very well transform the sluggish—though significant—Japanese robotics industry, and from there the future will be a race to turn around Japan’s stagnant economy while staying a jump ahead of the competition.

Not only will Japan welcome the proliferation of robots (or robot overlords, if something goes wrong)—they’re trying pretty hard to beat everyone else to a robot-integrated society. So far it seems that even if they don’t manage to overcome all the obstacles they face, they stand a good chance of being at least in the top three—which has worked out for them pretty well in the automotive industry.

 

Andrew Braun has an eclectic taste in music, a crippling addiction to change, and a time-consuming learning habit. He has held jobs as a writer, a web designer, a farmhand, a handyman, and a teacher, and plans to travel the world, teach, write, and work towards a master’s degree in political science.

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Andrew Braun

Andrew Braun has an eclectic taste in music, a crippling addiction to change, and a time-consuming learning habit. He has held jobs as a writer, a web designer, a farmhand, a handyman, and a teacher, and plans to travel the world, teach, write, and work towards a master’s degree in political science.

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