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Immigration or Robots?
September 21, 2009 10:50 AM   Subscribe

Japan is facing a demographic crisis that will shrink the population dramatically. The Japanese aren't having babies, and the country won't accept immigrants to help bolster the population. Japan: Robot Nation looks at a uniquely Japanese solution.

Cheat: Robots come in at the 15 minute mark.
posted by Extopalopaketle (55 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
This video is no longer available.

Nuts.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:59 AM on September 21, 2009


Huh? It still works fine from here. Only in Canada maybe?
posted by Extopalopaketle at 11:10 AM on September 21, 2009


That robot woman in the video is so creepily almost human. Why is a drop in population always framed as a national crisis? Aren't Japan's cities insanely overcrowded? Aren't the Japanese rapidly depleting the ocean of seafood? Seems like a massive drop in population would benefit the country immensely in the long run.

That won't happen anyways. As resources become plentiful we'll see a baby-making culture sprout up, it's pretty much inevitable.
posted by Locobot at 11:11 AM on September 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


It also worked for me (in the US). If you still can't see it, here's a short clip of promo text:
Robot Nation host and journalist, Adam Yamaguchi, talked to eight different Japanese robot researchers/companies about the explosion of robots predicted in Japan over the next few decades—including Honda about their robot superstar Asimo, as we see in this clip.

"Honda's probably the first company with the wide-enough reach to get [a Robot] inside every home, and they're thinking 10 years," Yamaguchi told us. "But smaller companies are bringing products to market now."
The show is also available on YouTube in their new large format. This is part of the Vanguard series, as available on Current's YouTube profile. It's also available on Hulu, though I think fewer could catch it there.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:14 AM on September 21, 2009


Seems like a massive drop in population would benefit the country immensely in the long run.

Are there no workhouses?

In any case, population shrinkage is generally framed as a national-level crisis because there aren't enough younger workers emerging to pay into the social service infrastructure that's taking care of the older citizens (among other things).
posted by jquinby at 11:14 AM on September 21, 2009


If only the whole world was facing such a "demographic crisis".
posted by benzenedream at 11:14 AM on September 21, 2009 [7 favorites]


Locobot: It's all about taking care of the older people. An aging population means that the caretakers will be stretched thin, so they need robotic helpers. It's more short term than the fish population concept.
posted by mccarty.tim at 11:18 AM on September 21, 2009


Why do they even allow you to slide the time slider if it won't stay where you put it?
posted by DU at 11:19 AM on September 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Why is a drop in population always framed as a national crisis?

Japan: 2005 2020 2050

What percentage of the graph in the last pyramid will actually be working and paying taxes? Who will pay for everything?
posted by kersplunk at 11:20 AM on September 21, 2009


Why is a drop in population always framed as a national crisis?

Societies have been arranged for millennia as having a large base of youth, a smaller middle section of middle-aged, and a small cap of lucky elders who were healthy enough to live to such an age as to need care, but not die off quickly. A pyramid shape, if you will.

Adjusting society to even a "column" whereby there's a roughly equal number at each tier would require massive change. We're seeing it in America right now. More money needs to be spent on health care for the elderly, as well as other adjustments to society to be humane to people who will be alive and active for another 30 years, but are unable to work or even necessarily climb stairs.

Japan's got it worse, where they're becoming almost an inverted pyramid. That, and no one wants to see their nation's importance diminish. As the population becomes smaller, the potential for Japan to be a world leader in science, sport, industry, etc. becomes smaller.

A drop in population would be good for nearly every country in the world. China and India each account for about 1/7 of the world population, and they experience overcrowding. The US, we don't need population drops so much as a more sustainable lifestyle. Either way, no one's really figured out a way to sell population drops or lifestyle simplifications in a way that people are willing to do so.
posted by explosion at 11:22 AM on September 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Maybe work is blocking it for some reason... very odd.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 11:22 AM on September 21, 2009


Why do they even allow you to slide the time slider if it won't stay where you put it?

"And then, right near the end I'll put a flat piece, with a little flag to give ya fucking' hope."


Sorry, it seemed like an appropriate analogy.
posted by zarq at 11:23 AM on September 21, 2009


Works great, except for the whole robots-don't-pay-taxes bit. They can either open up to immigration or let the old people suffer when the money for services runs out, I suppose.

It's tough being a semi-xenophobic island nation in a global economy with women who refuse to just be babymaking machines anymore, but you know, them's the breaks. Change or die out.

(not Japan-bashing per se, the US needs to figure out its own harsh but different lessons. Our xenophobia is a different flavor of hypocritical crazy).
posted by emjaybee at 11:32 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


If only the whole world was facing such a "demographic crisis".

Yeah, it's awesome when old people have to live in poverty!
posted by mr_roboto at 11:41 AM on September 21, 2009


the whole robots-don't-pay-taxes bit

At least until a firmware update, sure.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:43 AM on September 21, 2009


Robots.
posted by snofoam at 11:45 AM on September 21, 2009


So if the citizens of __________ don't start having more babies, __________ will be in a lot of trouble for a generation or two, but if the citizens of Earth don't start having fewer babies we'll all be in a lot of trouble?
posted by you just lost the game at 11:57 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't this push more people into the sciences (as new efficiencies and automation are required), resulting in a new golden age of technological advancements creating a society that lives to serve man? Higher demand will focus attention on medical technologies spurring explosive growth, resulting in super healthy immortal techno-wizards, each with a larger and larger ownership of Japans resources?

I think we're looking at the birth of every Sci-Fi writers dream, and our best hope for humanity.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:09 PM on September 21, 2009


Aren't Japan's cities insanely overcrowded?

They have density, which affords them goodies ranging from extensive public transit to fabulous street-level commerce. If Japan weren't so exclusive, I would much rather live in Tokyo than... just about any other city on earth. Despite the horrid summer. (okay, summers are better spent in Vancouver, San Francisco, or those Northern European cities topping the livability rankings every year)

Aren't the Japanese rapidly depleting the ocean of seafood? Seems like a massive drop in population would benefit the country immensely in the long run.

Assuming the first claim to be true for argument's sake, the situation can be remedied with "not too much, mostly plants" changes in diets. I find it absurd to emphasize reducing the number of people over reducing the amount of resources each person consumes above necessity levels. YMMV
posted by fatehunter at 12:17 PM on September 21, 2009


Works great, except for the whole robots-don't-pay-taxes bit.

I think you're missing the point, which is to replace government workers with robots. So for example, home care for the elderly, which would be paid for by the government will be done by robots for free.

Also, you could have a robot tax.
posted by delmoi at 12:27 PM on September 21, 2009


So if the citizens of __________ don't start having more babies, __________ will be in a lot of trouble for a generation or two, but if the citizens of Earth don't start having fewer babies we'll all be in a lot of trouble?

Many countries have higher birthrates than necessary to keep the population stable. Countries with high birthrates are generally poor. (insert appropriate blurb about correlation/causation)
posted by desjardins at 12:30 PM on September 21, 2009


My first sentence should have been in italics, as it is a quote from you just lost the game.
posted by desjardins at 12:30 PM on September 21, 2009


Works great, except for the whole robots-don't-pay-taxes bit. They can either open up to immigration or let the old people suffer when the money for services runs out, I suppose.

So you tax the corporations that employ the new, drastically more productive and less expensive robot workforce more to make up the gap.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:32 PM on September 21, 2009


"All watched over by machines of loving grace."
posted by entropicamericana at 12:48 PM on September 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


does mefi have any population control experts in its ranks? I always imagine that stuff like this works itself out naturally, where (for example) an overcrowded population will naturally start to dwindle as resources deplete, but once it dwindles past a certain point the competition for those resources relaxes. but honestly, I don't really know what I'm talking about.
posted by shmegegge at 1:05 PM on September 21, 2009


Seems like a massive drop in population would benefit the country immensely in the long run.

I think so, but getting to there from here is the problem.

It occurred to me recently that the wealthiest society would be the Logan's Run society -- everyone single and in their 20s. Yet part of human happiness is raising your children and living to old age, so that truncated existence would be a particularly odd form of wealth.

The elderly themselves don't require much in terms of resources. They've paid off their house, which is the major expense for most people. Drugs have obscene profit margins, the actual cost of goods in them is miniscule and not much burden to society.

Nursing care is the biggie I guess. It's more efficient to collect old people into care facilities, and give them at least 10% nurse coverage. That's around $10,000 per year in costs I guess.

Another interesting economic angle is the role of capital investment to replace or magnify labor productivity. A diesel-powered combine is much more efficient harvesting corn than 10 dudes with baskets. The labor required to build, maintain, and operate the combine, over its life, is much less than the collective labor of the 10 dudes, assuming the combine has a long enough service life.

Robots are a similar investment in capital. If they work, they make us richer by providing services that we normally have to pay somebody to labor to provide for us.

That's why the definition I like to toss out: "wealth is that which provides the services that satisfy human wants and needs". Back in the 18th century many americans purchased slaves and indentured servants to perform the labor services we needed, and the industrial and consumer goods revolutions have by now replaced these laborers with machines. The process can continue, since it is the service we require, not the labor per se.
posted by Palamedes at 1:11 PM on September 21, 2009


It's hard to imagine that there will be a robot army taking care of the elderly or doing basic jobs.

I've always thought that Japanese robotics were more of a prestige project designed to attract investment, appease shareholders, and showcase technological proficiency. The various component parts of Asimo might be deployed in different ways, but Japan is just not going to deploy any more robots per capita than any other industrialized nation.

For instance, in Canada I can already get my cash from an ATM. In Vancouver, I can hop on an automated train (the Skytrain), I can dial 411 and will speak to an automated system.

The real crisis Japan faces as a result of its declining birthrate is not that there will not be enough workers to change the diapers of the elderly.

The crisis is instead of productivity - there aren't going to be enough engineers, lawyers, administrators, doctors, designers, and others who typically add value to the economy and help create prosperity. These are jobs that robots cannot do.

In regards to immigration, believe it or not, but Japan is slowly moving towards relaxing some immigration controls (rather, immigration will be increased, but strictly controlled).

Major efforts are underway to, for example, recruit nurses from the Philippines and Indonesia.

The Japanese tend to take a long time to consider *how to* change, but when they decide, they execute lightning fast.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:17 PM on September 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


I first made this this graphic 5 or so years ago. Given nationmaster's color choices it is possible to easily compare some pairs of years (they have to be complementary colors for this to work).

The linked image compares 1990 to 2005 -- gray is the common population, translucent color is the lost population and solid color is the added population.

1990 is significant to me because I was FOB in Tokyo in 1992. My Lolita ambitions are dashed, there are 2 million fewer young women 15-25 now than there was in 1990!

Major efforts are underway to, for example, recruit nurses from the Philippines and Indonesia.

yeah, this makes a lot of economic sense, compared to robots.

The crisis is instead of productivity - there aren't going to be enough engineers, lawyers, administrators, doctors, designers, and others who typically add value to the economy and help create prosperity.

I was thinking about this, but I think economies can scale in either direction. Japan has 120 million people, while Germany has 82 million. Who's to say which is more value-add? To my mind, all that matters is the efficiency of production given the access to inputs of natural resources.

As I hinted in my Logan's Run thing above, children and the retired are really net drags on the economy. One fewer child in a household means the national wealth can go a lot further.
posted by Palamedes at 1:28 PM on September 21, 2009


I can imagine armies of robots handling all societies small details, but only if more highly paid humans manage the tricky bits. So you might've toilet sanitation specialists earning $250k per year equipped with $1M cybernetic implants and training for managing thousands of robots. :) I think the only low level job that's completely safe from machine encroachment is social bar man or girl, i.e. social bar staff creates regulars.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:32 PM on September 21, 2009


I'm personally very happy if the Japanese try using more robots, even if their reasons are xenophobic. Someone should push the robots envelope.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:39 PM on September 21, 2009


a new golden age of technological advancements creating a society that lives to serve man

Sounds like Zardoz to me. And you know what happened to the Immortals, right?
posted by Meatbomb at 1:41 PM on September 21, 2009


Seems like a massive drop in population would benefit the country immensely in the long run.

This is only true if the new, smaller population begins having babies at a sustainable rate. Otherwise the problem simply gets worse and worse until the country is depopulated and somebody else moves in and takes over. Like China.
posted by Justinian at 1:42 PM on September 21, 2009


Whoever thinks robots are the solution has not been watching cartoons I have.
posted by ServSci at 1:43 PM on September 21, 2009


This is only true if the new, smaller population begins having babies at a sustainable rate. Otherwise the problem simply gets worse and worse until the country is depopulated and somebody else moves in and takes over.

It's reasonable to expect that birthrate trends will change in the future when conditions are different.
posted by deanc at 2:28 PM on September 21, 2009


In any case, population shrinkage is generally framed as a national-level crisis because there aren't enough younger workers emerging to pay into the social service infrastructure that's taking care of the older citizens...

...and generally distract attention from how much taxable wealth exists among the upper and even middle classes.
posted by regicide is good for you at 2:32 PM on September 21, 2009


You can tax wealth but it's labor that provides the gross national product.

Part of the Japanese dynamic does strike me as a collection of rich land barons wondering how they're going to maintain their wealth tied up in land in the face of collapsing need for land.

It seems to me that land out in the sticks in Japan is going to get /really/ cheap eventually. I call dibs on the Izu Hanto!
posted by Palamedes at 2:40 PM on September 21, 2009


It's reasonable to expect that birthrate trends will change in the future when conditions are different.

Dunno if conditions will change, really. Parents only want 1 or 2 kids, if that. Bunch of otaku can't get it on at all. Birthrate of 1.3. I don't see the Red Chinese arriving in assault barges but the Japan of 100 million people of 2050 is going to be a different place, at least out in the country. (I suspect most of the depopulation will occur as a centralization phenomenon, the nation will roll up towards Tokyo.)

While the Yamanote may not return to the underpopulated city frontier it was ~150 years ago, the thought is interesting.
posted by Palamedes at 2:48 PM on September 21, 2009


It's reasonable to expect that birthrate trends will change in the future when conditions are different.

Why? I don't see any particular reason to believe birth rate will go up instead of down.
posted by Justinian at 2:54 PM on September 21, 2009


^ well if we are in fact talking economic collapse then it would behoove the PtB to fire up a new baby boom via a demonstrated commitment to social incentives like workplace reform, daycare, subsidized education through college, etc.

This was somewhat related to the recent election results, I gather -- a realignment from the traditional conservative rural vote to the less conservative urban voter.

Not that I think a Mao-style population surge would be wise, but if the Ministry of the Interior needs my services, I can make myself available.
posted by Palamedes at 3:02 PM on September 21, 2009


does mefi have any population control experts in its ranks? I always imagine that stuff like this works itself out naturally, where (for example) an overcrowded population will naturally start to dwindle as resources deplete, but once it dwindles past a certain point the competition for those resources relaxes. but honestly, I don't really know what I'm talking about.

Not an expert, but I've done some graduate work in demography. You're correct that a population will "naturally start to dwindle" if resource constraints become very tight--if by that you mean that people will start to starve to death, child mortality will skyrocket, and infectious diseases will become more deadly because the population is chronically stunted/malnourished. The reduction in population from resource constraints is pretty much all on the mortality side, not the fertility side. In fact, it may actually cause fertility to rise: as infant mortality goes up, you're more likely to compensate by having more children in order to ensure at least a few survive to adulthood.

More abundant resources, if they're distributed up and down the income ladder, actually lower the fertility rate. (Google around for the phrase "demographic transition" for more info.) While there are some competing ideas about why this is so, the one that has always made the most sense to me is that once a society gets rich enough to have a social safety net, you don't necessarily NEED to have children in order to ensure you don't starve to death once you're old and infirm. That, plus expanded employment opportunities for women that give them the ability to survive without marriage or babymaking, is a pretty sure way to dramatically lower fertility rates. See here for a nice graphical representation. This is one reason why some population control outfits operating in Africa, Asia and Latin America have really shifted their focus from handing out birth control and condoms to programs that empower (read: educate and employ) women.

The "problem" is that for many advanced Western societies, the average number of children per woman has dipped below 2, which is replacement rate. It varies a lot by country, though, with the U.S. still above replacement (2.04), a bunch of the Nordic countries pretty close to replacement (Iceland is at 1.99, Norway at 1.75, Sweden at 1.67) and some European countries pretty low (Italy, Greece and Spain are just below 1.30, as is Japan). This threatens the very safety net that has allowed people to forgo having children, because fewer people of working age are supporting more and more people who have retired.

Immigration is one way to deal with that problem, as it's a pretty easy way to expand the population in a very age-targeted way (the vast majority of immigrants are working-age). I also think it's no coincidence that the rich countries that have feminist-friendly social norms and public policies seem to have higher birth rates than countries where getting married and having children means you're expected to drop out of the labor force and care for your kids and probably husband too. This appears to be at least part of the explanation in Japan.
posted by iminurmefi at 3:10 PM on September 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


this threatens the very safety net that has allowed people to forgo having children, because fewer people of working age are supporting more and more people who have retired.

I'd rather support 100 old folks in a home rather than one camo-clad soldier blowing up stuff overseas.

Resource cost is about the same, I gather. The US currently has 1 million active warfighters, and a $700B/yr defense bill, or $2,300 per capita. Japan's per-capita on defense is $300. That $2000 can go a long way.
posted by Palamedes at 3:23 PM on September 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Part of the Japanese dynamic does strike me as a collection of rich land barons wondering how they're going to maintain their wealth tied up in land in the face of collapsing need for land.

Yeah, but there is no Big Ag controlling massive corporate farms in Japan like there is in the US. It's all small landowners amongst the 60% of the population that lives outside major urban centers in Japan.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:27 PM on September 21, 2009


^ I'm thinking of the Mori empire. And the private railways like Seibu, all of whom intimately involved in the 80s parabolic bubble mania.

Life out in the sticks is pretty hard-scrabble already, I assume. Take away the price supports and it would all blow away.
posted by Palamedes at 4:51 PM on September 21, 2009


Unless we can magic up a spare earth or two, Japan's problems are ones that every single society is going to have to face sooner or later. The more they can learn how to do it, the better for all of us.

"Anyone who believes in continued growth in a finite system is either an economist or a madman" -- Kenneth Boulding.
posted by wilful at 5:05 PM on September 21, 2009


I always imagine that stuff like this works itself out naturally, where (for example) an overcrowded population will naturally start to dwindle as resources deplete, but once it dwindles past a certain point the competition for those resources relaxes.

Then there's the Easter Island model....
posted by IndigoJones at 5:06 PM on September 21, 2009


"won't accept immigrants to help bolster the population."

Well, nobody needs immigrants to "bolster the population" but to work and create value since you may "save" for retirement but the value HAS to be created by future generations.

See Mackenroth hypothesis:

"Now the simple and clear sentence applies that all social expenditure must be always covered from the national income of the current period. There is no other source and has never another source given, from which social expenditure could flow, it gives no accumulation from period to period, no "saving"in the private-economical sense, it gives simply nothing at all different one than the current national income than source for the social expenditure. That is not also a special or Ungunst of our time, which lives from hand to mouth, but that was always like that and can never be different."
http://www.economy-point.org/m/mackenroth-thesis.html

To let robots do the job seems like a good idea since it will be difficult for immigrants to adopt to the Japanese culture. When I see how often Europeans are victims of violence by Muslim youths in Europe then I wish Europeans had went the Japanese path.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 5:17 PM on September 21, 2009


One complication in the economics is the $700B in Treasuries Japan is holding.

At 5% interest that's $35B/yr in interest alone. Say hiring a nurse aid from the Philippines costs $50K per year, that's . . . SEVEN HUNDRED THOUSAND nurses that America can pay for.

yes, the number surprised me.
posted by Palamedes at 5:28 PM on September 21, 2009


The robot pets remind me eerily of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was made into an interesting movie.
posted by theora55 at 5:46 PM on September 21, 2009


Birth rate drop, no immigration, sounds like Sparta.
posted by ovvl at 7:21 PM on September 21, 2009


Robots don't need to pay taxes. Robots can just mine for minerals, sell them at market value, and put it in a government bank account. What would a robot want with money anyhow? They're programmed to be boring automatons with no free will. They're like your parents, only even more resistant to buy that cool toy you wanted.

All we really need to do is set up the robots to automatically switch to mining and self-replicaiton mode when they have no tasks at hand. It's pretty safe to say that nothing bad could come from having too many robots that just so happen to be too efficient. After all, the Cash for Clunkers program tried to do the same thing with cars, and it didn't go self aware for even a second!
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:38 PM on September 21, 2009


Yeah, it's awesome when old people have to live in poverty!

Far better that than babies dying of malnutrition, i suppose.
posted by HalfJack at 8:08 PM on September 21, 2009


this was addressed in one of the always amazing episodes of Radiolab from 2007: Mortality.
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:53 PM on September 21, 2009




Here in Korea there's a similar trend. And it's pretty common for men living in rural areas to take brides from Philipines, Thailand, or Vietnam. It's led to some pretty complicated, if not downright terrible, situations for the women involved who come here and don't speak the language.

The government is giving some pretty substantial tax-breaks to parents to have more kids, but one of the drawbacks of the recession is that parents don't feel like they can afford to have more than one kid, or even the first one.

IMO, it's kind of bleak for Korea re: supporting future retirees. Then again, you have to keep in mind that cultures with a Confucian influence are all about taking care of elderly relatives (in theory). But Japan's numbers are downright scary.
posted by bardic at 12:48 AM on September 22, 2009


yoyo_nyc - When I see how often Europeans are victims of violence by Muslim youths in Europe

WTF? I think you may have that backwards.

From iminurmefi's linked article:

"We need to organize our society so that women and families will be able to raise children while working," Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said in an interview in May. "I think we still lack adequate efforts on that front."

I would say that the capitalist model is at least partly to blame for this global phenomenon. Workers earning enough to survive (some even quite comfortably) are time poor and always under threat of losing their hard earned place in the workforce if they choose to take a sabbatical from the rat race. Individualism fragments families and communities. People who have children need the support of trusted individuals (friends or family), if they are not available then paying someone to do parenting on their behalf is necessary, if they can afford it. Children are a financial drag and time sink that many people, worn out by the grind of existence in a capitalist society, cannot conceive as being a benefit.

In addition, the overwhelming message of advertising is that young is beautiful. Children add years to your looks. If wisdom were venerated, crow's feet, middle-age spread and balding (for the men) would be perceived positively. Instead, whole industries exist to exploit people's fears of the inexorable march of time. Creating a population of perpetual teenagers with (hopefully) increasing disposable income to feed back into the capitalist machine, in pursuit of some form of respite from the reality of their situation. Escapism, both intellectual and physical are encouraged, anything to avoid the realisation that
"Anyone who believes in continued growth in a finite system is either an economist or a madman"
The current system is set up to allow the few to exploit the many until there is nothing left. It needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Communities where the extended family are on hand to share child care have more children. Communities where people are at ease with their social value, not threatened by the vagaries of financial depravities enacted by unelected, unnecessary, amoral actors whose behaviour is nothing short of sociopathic, are much more likely to produce happy families. Fear is not conducive to child rearing.

The idea that robots might be able to autonomously act and care for people is so far off the mark that it doesn't bear considering. You don't have to be a carer, IT specialist, mechanic, electrician, AI deceloper or robotics expert to see this. The cost of human labour is far cheaper than any robot will be. Training people to do jobs is always going to be cheaper than developing robots.

Until the next pandemic wipes out 90% of the global human population, at least. But then it wont be a problem any more ; ) Now that's something someone could write a sci-fi book about!
posted by asok at 3:03 AM on September 22, 2009


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