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Despite government push of AI and robots, Japanese fear tech to lead to inequality and job losses: survey

by Chris Russell

Staff Writer

Japan is among the biggest users of robots in the world, with 303 per 10,000 employees in 2016 — the fourth-highest globally — according to the International Federation of Robotics. But despite such adoption — or perhaps because of it — belief in the displacement of human workers due to technology and fears of the effects thereof are widespread in the country, according to a survey published Thursday.

The country is among 10, including the United States, Italy, South Africa and Canada, in which large majorities believe that robots and computers will take over many jobs currently done by humans, the Pew Research Center revealed. Eighty-nine percent — the second-highest among the nations surveyed — said this will “probably” or “definitely” happen.

But a positive vision of the impact of this technology, with workers freed from menial tasks and new job opportunities arising, has not taken hold here. Those believing people would have difficulty finding new jobs and that economic inequality would worsen from current levels stood at 74 percent and 83 percent, respectively, while only 35 percent thought there would be better, higher-paying jobs available as a result of robots and computers taking over most work currently done by humans.

However, 74 percent thought the economy would be more efficient, by far the highest rate of the countries surveyed. Only in Poland and Hungary did a majority of respondents express similar optimism, with the remaining seven countries mostly skeptical of the notion.

In terms of responsibility for preparing the workforce for this automated, artificial intelligence-driven future, 63 percent in Japan saw this as the role of government. Only about 40 percent of people thought such responsibility fell with schools, employers or individuals themselves.

That stood in contrast to the United States, where only about a third saw this as the role of government, with the majority believing the onus falls on the education system, businesses and people. Majorities in the remaining countries believed all such entities had responsibility for preparing for this economic and technological transition.

The use of AI and robots are key components of the Japanese government’s “Society 5.0” vision, with these technologies anticipated to alleviate hard manual work and drive the adoption of “smart” construction and manufacturing. Such a society is billed by the Cabinet Office as being human-centric, freeing people from arduous work and optimizing the provision of goods and services. However, the Pew survey results suggest this optimistic view of the future is not reaching, or resonating with, the general public.