In fast-aging Japan, researchers have calculated that up to 49 percent of jobs could be done by robots within the next ten to 20 years.
"We did the same kind of analysis in Japan that Professor Michael Osborne from Oxford University carried out in the UK and the US," Yumi Wakao, a researcher at Nomura Research Institute (NRI), told me over the phone. "We found that up to 49 percent of jobs could be replaced by computer systems."
"However, this is only a hypothetical technical calculation," she added. "It doesn't take into account social factors."
In the new report published by NRI on Wednesday, the researchers examined 601 jobs in collaboration with researchers from Oxford University, including Osborne.
Jobs that require creativity, compassion, and analysis of abstract thoughts wouldn't be so easy to replace
"Due to a shrinking population, labor shortages are predicted for Japan. We're looking at the social repercussions of attempting to preserve the labor force by introducing AI and robots into it," write the researchers in their report.
They assessed how likely it was for each job to be automated, using a computer algorithm to analyze how creative it was. Researchers predict that creative jobs are better suited to humans, while robots will be better at repetitive tasks.
The main jobs that are up for grabs are the usual suspects—namely taxi drivers, clerical data-inputting style jobs, security guards and receptionists—which the researchers argued required little creativity. Japan is already trialling automating some of these jobs. Take, for instance, the robot receptionists manning the front desk at Japan's robot-run Henn-na hotel.
Wakao explained that Japan's possibility to automate jobs was higher than in the UK, because many data-inputting jobs already done by machines in the UK were still being done by humans in Japan.
Ultimately, she said that the jobs that require creativity, compassion, and analysis of abstract thoughts wouldn't be so easy to replace with robots.
"Service jobs that require creativity, communication, empathy, or negotiation will be hard to replace with computerization," said Wakao. "In the report, the researchers comment that the Japanese are good at jobs in these industries, and that if other sectors could be automated, it would free more people to do such jobs."
The argument for robots to take over our menial jobs, allowing humans to embrace more creative sectors is popular in Japan. However, Wakao noted that there would still need to be a proper infrastructure in place to promote the development of skills in such areas.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe consistently threatens to cut funding in the liberal arts—fields which promote creativity and critical thought—while endorsing a "robot revolution" and more investment in our hard-cased counterparts. From the looks of it, Japan is facing an ever-shrinking population of creative humans and a growing population of robots geared for menial labor. So who'll be there to do the imaginative jobs once the population is depleted?
Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.