January 07, 2008
Japanese Embrace Robots For Demographic Crisis

Read this Washington Post article on Japan's embrace of robots for their demographic problem: Demographic Crisis, Robotic Cure? Rejecting Immigration, Japan Turns to Technology as Workforce Shrinks

TOKYO -- With a surfeit of the old and a shortage of the young, Japan is on course for a population collapse unlike any in human history.

See my third excerpt below and try to guess why I do not expect this demographic collapse to happen.

The hope is that service robots will take care of old folks.

But engineers say it's the "service robots," which can't dance a lick and don't look remotely human, that can bail out Japan, which has the world's largest proportion of residents over 65 and smallest proportion of children under 15. One such gizmo, on display at the show, can spoon-feed the elderly. Others are being designed to hoist them onto a toilet and phone a nurse when they won't take their pills.

Toyota, the world's largest car company, announced last month that service robots would soon become one of its core businesses. The government heavily subsidizes development of these machines. Other cheerleaders for robots include universities and much of the news media.

If artificial intelligence comes in 30 or 40 years then service robots will far exceed the goals which some skeptics (quoted in the article) have about them.

So here are the supposedly horrific numbers on the future population of Japan.

Population shrinkage began here three years ago and is gathering pace. Within 50 years, the population, now 127 million, will fall by a third, the government projects. Within a century, two-thirds of the population will be gone. That would leave Japan, now the world's second-largest economy, with about 42 million people.

First off, picture the population of the whole world dropping by two thirds. I find the prospect very appealing. Huge numbers of other species would be saved from extinction. The consequences of dwindling fossil fuels (Peak Oil, Peak Natural Gas, and Peak Coal) would become much less severe. Also, the air and water would be far less polluted. Picture China today with only a third its current population. The massive exhaust plumes stretching out over the Pacific would be much smaller.

But why won't Japan's population drop by two thirds? I can see two reasons:

  • Natural selection will select for Japanese people who more want to have children. Right now the Japanese are under huge selective pressure where genetic variations that boost fertility are getting selected for. Those alleles will raise fertility of future generations of Japanese.
  • Life spans will greatly increase as a result of advances in biotechnology. Our approaching war on aging will make shrinking populations into stable or growing populations. We will probably achieve actuarial escape velocity in some countries by mid 21st century. Then our life expectancy will increase by at least a year every year.

As I see it, the current demographic trend in Japan will make it easier for the Japanese to transition to a post-humanist society where people live with young bodies for thousands of years. Their shrinking population which seems like such a problem today will become a great advantage for those who are still alive 50 years from now.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 January 07 07:53 PM  Trends Demographic

kurt9 said at January 7, 2008 9:24 PM:

I would be more impressed, not to mention happy, if the Japanese embraced SENS as well.

Maybe I can get my wife to translate the SENS website into Japanese. Perhaps Aubrey has found a publisher willing to publish a Japanese language version of "Ending Aging".

Maybe I should get off my a** and find him a publisher in Japan.

aa2 said at January 7, 2008 11:55 PM:

One thing I noticed about robots as a strategy is there is lots of room for error. For example I believe we will have better then C-3PO robots showing up in the mid 2030's... same level of intelligence but higher functionality. But say I'm wrong and it actually takes until 2050. An extra 15 years. In the long history of Japan 15 years is a short time span. I have read about still operating Japanese companies that were founded in the year 400. Even if they have to cut some benefits for a few years in the meantime.. so what.. Japan will still be Japan, with all its wonderful history and culture, and stability.

In Japan said at January 8, 2008 2:17 AM:

But Japan won't be Japan in 30 years as technology keeps accelerating and new communication opens it up far more than the internet has so far.

Brock said at January 8, 2008 6:43 AM:

"picture the population of the whole world dropping by two thirds."

Arts, science and progress immediately fall off by more than two-thirds. Scientific progress is a function heavily influenced by the variable population density; it's a non-linear relationship (in both directions).

"Natural selection will select for Japanese people who more want to have children."

Over the next several centuries, maybe. I don't see how it's going to change anything within two generations. That's not nearly enough time. Evolution doesn't nearly has as much effect here as government policy.

David Govett said at January 8, 2008 9:17 AM:

Japan will be a de facto colony of China in 30 years, unless the Singularity occurs, in which case we'll all be subjects of our AI overlords.

HellKaiserRyo said at January 8, 2008 9:21 AM:

No, we will merge with technology; technology will not control us.

Kelly Parks said at January 8, 2008 12:46 PM:

The idea that Japan's population growth will be affected in any way by "natural selection" is nonsense, Randall. That takes many, many generations to make meaningful changes to a population and Japan's population crisis will play out one way or another within this century.

The idea that population decline for the whole world might be a good thing (in terms of pollution, resources, etc.) is fine but the actual decline is not a universal trend. Some cultures have chosen to make reproduction such a low priority that their population is shrinking but others don't share that point of view and are growing just fine. Unfortunately the cultures with increasing populations also don't share the point of view that free market liberal democracy, with free speech and equal rights for all, is the best form of government.

I do agree that demography will be drastically affected by extended life spans starting in the next few decades. Japan's population is shrinking because for every two people that die only one new person is born. Lowering the death rate can be as effective as increasing the birth rate.

kurt9 said at January 8, 2008 3:27 PM:


I said the following on the Washington Post article comments section:

Having lived in Japan for 9 years (1991-2000), I think I am more qualified to discuss this issue than anyone here who has never lived in Japan. Given that, the purported demographic collapse is not as much of a problem as one might think. In fact, it is an opportunity, not a crisis.

The article states that Japan's workforce will decrease by 20% in the next 20 decades. I can you that much of Japan's industry is heavily cartelized and regulated. As a result, this industry is not competitive and is the reason why everything is so expensive in Japan. Reducing the workforce by 20% just by natural attrition is a golden opportunity for Japanese industry to liberalize itself without the attendant problems of unemployment that is plaguing China's efforts to liberalize its economy.

I can tell you that way more than 20% of Japan's workforce is in "make work" jobs of little economic productivity. Liberalizing Japan's economy will simply eliminate the need for this.

The Japanese prefer robotics and automation to importing an uneducated workforce? Good for them! Necessity is the motherhood of invention and automation results in continual economic productivity increase that can never be matched by unskilled labor.

Third, there are more innovative methods of dealing with population decline. My favorite one is called SENS (www.sens.org). SENS means Strategically Engineered Neglible Senescence, otherwise known as the cure for aging or frigging immortality.

What Japan is experiencing now is what everyone else will experience 30-50 years later. Since necessity is the motherhood of invention and the first society to go through the transition gains first mover advantage, perhaps Japan will be the first transhumanist society on the planet.

Maybe those Japanese will over take the the West after all.

In Japan said at January 8, 2008 4:12 PM:

"I can you that much of Japan's industry is heavily cartelized and regulated. As a result, this industry is not competitive and is the reason why everything is so expensive in Japan."

That was more the case when you lived there in the 90s but quite a bit of dergulation has been underway since the big bang was launched in 1997.

There is no demographic in Japan due to the technological changes ahead including age slowing and a much healthier populace.

Bob Badour said at January 8, 2008 4:43 PM:


The museums of the world are filled with great masterpieces made when the human population was a fraction of the size it is now.

Randall Parker said at January 8, 2008 7:13 PM:


One of the interesting things about charts of the rate of technological and scientific progress is that one can't detect inflection points caused by, say, the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union or China. In theory innovation should have accelerated as more minds joined world markets. But look at charts of technological progress rates in books by Ray Kurzweil. I'm hard pressed to see how huge changes in economic systems which added many more thinking nodes to capitalist economies sped things up. I'm happy to be disproved on this point.

Another point: It matters which people have more or fewer babies. For example, if the population of Africa declined by 95% we wouldn't be able to detect a change in the rate of global innovation. Innovation is very unevenly distributed around the world. Of course, that's an argument for Japan maintaining its current population level. The Japanese generate a lot of technological advances.

Another point: Larger populations create needs for innovations that just help to break even (at best). For example, as population sizes rise we need to cut back on pollution per person. The marginal cost of pollution production rises. So the cost of pollution reduction goes up. If we had far fewer people we could spend less on pollution control. The same holds for many other things such as efficiency of energy usage, efforts to extract raw materials, and fishing. With a smaller population we'd get cheaper fish and more fish per person.

kurt9 said at January 9, 2008 9:02 AM:


The Chinese are just starting to get into the innovation game. Their economy was very low-level when they first began reform in 1979. It is easier for a developing economy to do the basic things more cheaply than it is to innovate and make new stuff. Now that they are catching up, there is now a push in China to do serious R&D. Also, until recently, the best and brightest from China came to the U.S. Now that China is growing and developing more, this brain drain will slowly reverse and we will see more innovation coming out of China. I expect to see more activity in this area from the Chinese in the next decade or so.

Russia is a more difficult case. Since I have not been there, I don't know Russia as well as China. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, I expected that they would commercialize a lot of space hardware during the 90's. This did not happen. I can think of two explanations for the lack of innovation from Russia. One, many of their best and brightest came to the U.S. I know and work with some of these people personally. So, I know this to be a factor. Two, the communistic system was so dysfunctional and parasitical that any real work was so completely strangled that there was simply nothing left following the collapse of communism. This explanation cannot explain why they are not innovating today.

Brock said at January 9, 2008 9:05 AM:


Intelligence (or Units of Time that Intelligence is Productively Applied) is the only scarce resource that really matters in the long run. We have short term shortages in energy or various types of matter as our engineering seeks to keep up with variations in supply and demand, but smart engineers make sure those are blips (when politicians don't fuck it up). Do you really think Japan would turn out the same number of patents with half the people? Do you think the rate of world innovation would not increase if their population doubled? Population pressures are real, but (except in very extreme circumstances) increasing the number of smart, hard working people is always the best choice. Earth can support a lot more people than it does even now; especially once solar & fusion energy and advances in "closed cycle" fuel systems make the whole pollution thing largely of the past.

Bob: What's your point? Da Vinci and Rembrant were geniuses, sure. So was Bach. But are you suggesting that somehow there is less art being created today then in the 16th century? Don't be a fool. Creativity is flowing like never before, in dozens of more forms too.

Randall Parker said at January 9, 2008 4:59 PM:


Actually a single generation is enough if the selective pressure is strong enough and adaptive alleles with large enough adaptive advantage are present.

There are small villages in Britain that have different genetic signatures than each other because some got the plague from travelers some years hundreds of years ago and others did not. The ones that got the plague have a higher frequency of an allele that confers protection against the plague.

Randall Parker said at January 9, 2008 5:36 PM:


We've brain drained a lot of other countries. So their smarties didn't have to wait for their countries to become more industrialized. Well, why don't Kurzweil's charts show a speeding up of technological progress as a result?

Show me Moore's Law speeding up. So me an accelerated drop in photovoltaic prices. These things didn't happen.

KC said at July 30, 2008 2:18 AM:

The Catastrophe of Population Decline
I think terms like “demographic crisis" and "population collapse" are appropriate to describe the impending catastrophe of population decline. After all, if the Japanese population shrinks by 2/3rds in the next century, they might end up with no traffic congestion at all, and that is part of the Japanese way of life. Fewer people would also have the burden of inheriting more resources and being in charge of a whole country that was once owned by 2/3rds more people. We all know it a burden being rich, so the Japanese are just going to have to accept this miserable fate. As others have wisely observed, the arts and sciences would be devastated by having a small, affluent class of people with lots of leisure time, and "life experience." Everyone knows that the only way to generate great new ideas is to have lots of worker bees jam-packed into cubicles and/or import lots of semi-literate foreigners. Too bad the Japanese do not have an emphasis on long term planning, because they could have looked ahead and seen the great value of additional breeding and the herding in of more immigrants.

Their focus on robotics is another crisis, because it is kind of creepy and reminds me of Frankenstein. I mean, to think that you would be living and working in "harmony" with high tech machines designed to ease your daily chores. You would not get enough challenges in your daily routine if every time you fell, someone or some "thing!" was there to pick your right back up. Perhaps some would even try "intelligence amplification" (IA) by making you more wired to networks of computers. That is a truly horrific thought!!! Sure you might seem like a super genius, and stave off some of the effects of senility, but in a kind of creepy way like the Borgs on Star Trek Next Generation...you know, "you will be assimilated." Also, some of those technologies might inevitable be used for evil purposes like extending people's lifespans. As the Bush administration has wisely told us, living longer would be terrible because "immortals cannot be noble." It is just common sense that the shorter you live, the more noble you are. And, living long also makes God mad...do not ask me why...it just does!

So, I will just have to sadly sum up by saying that if only the Japanese had thought ahead and imported vast hordes of third world peasants. Robots will never work because they cannot dance...and they have no emotion, like Mr. Spock and Mr. Data (I hope my allusions to great literature like Star Trek do not make me seem too highbrow.) The best that robots can do at the moment is for you to get one of those silly little mobility-scooter/power-chairs so you could take yourself to the bathroom and lift yourself up and down. But who would want the burden of doing that? You could just bring in a bunch of uneducated illegal immigrants and hire them to undress you and hoist you onto the commode. It has the added benefit of reduced privacy, because when you are old, you are lonely, so you could have some interesting conversations with the minimum wage temp worker who has to bathe you, dress you, and wipe your backside.

Zorro said at June 6, 2009 1:33 PM:

KC, with: 'You could just bring in a bunch of uneducated illegal immigrants and hire them to undress you and hoist you onto the commode. It has the added benefit of reduced privacy, because when you are old, you are lonely, so you could have some interesting conversations with the minimum wage temp worker who has to bathe you, dress you, and wipe your backside' You left out: 'steal your valuables'.

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