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Robots to the rescue in ageing Japan

TOKYO — A new greeter at the Mitsukoshi department store here is causing a stir. Dressed in a kimono and cheerfully welcoming shoppers is a robot made by Toshiba, showing how lifelike these machines can be.

Humanoid robot ‘Aiko Chihira’, developed by Toshiba, has caused a stir as the new greeter at the Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo. Photo: Bloomberg

Humanoid robot ‘Aiko Chihira’, developed by Toshiba, has caused a stir as the new greeter at the Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo. Photo: Bloomberg

TOKYO — A new greeter at the Mitsukoshi department store here is causing a stir. Dressed in a kimono and cheerfully welcoming shoppers is a robot made by Toshiba, showing how lifelike these machines can be.

This latest example of Japan’s skill comes as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is calling for a “robot revolution”. Advances in robotic computing power, the ability to recognise voices and images, and machine learning could help the country overcome an ageing populace and a declining workforce.

At the opening of Japan’s Robot Revolution Initiative Council on May 15, Mr Abe urged firms to “spread the use of robotics from large-scale factories to every corner of our economy and society”. Backed by 200 firms and universities, the five-year, government-led push aims to deepen the use of intelligent machines in manufacturing, supply chains, construction and healthcare, while expanding robotics sales from ¥600 billion (S$6.53 billion) annually to ¥2.4 trillion by 2020.

In factory robots, Japanese firms command 50 per cent of the global market, said the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). The nation’s companies also enjoy a 90 per cent share in parts such as precision gears, servo motors to move robotic limbs, and specialised sensors.

Japan has a built-in edge over its rivals — China and South Korea, which are catching up fast —starting with a deep and sophisticated domestic robotics industry, said Mr Hal Sirkin, a senior partner and managing director at Boston Consulting. In factory robotics, “they can pretty much easily produce what they need”. Cheaper sensors, motors and computing power have driven the cost of some industrial robots to as low as US$25,000 (S$33,700), down from US$100,000 only a few years ago.

That means small and midsize companies can afford advanced machines. With Japan’s declining workforce, job displacement will not be as much of a barrier to rolling out more machines as it would in the US. By 2025, Japan’s robots could shave 25 per cent off factory labour costs, said BCG.

Japan’s inefficient service sector — it is only about 60 per cent as productive as its US counterpart, said METI — could benefit. The government wants machines to provide logistical support, perform surgery and work in disaster recovery in the quake-prone nation. Other priorities are commercial drones and nurse robots. Panasonic has developed a robot that transforms from a bed to a wheelchair.

Said Yoshiko Yurugi, a robotics expert at the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization: “We are entering an era when we will have to rely on robots.” BLOOMBERG

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