Researchers in Japan recently analyzed 601 jobs and found that 49 percent of the common occupations they analyzed could be performed by robots or computer automation in the next 10 to 20 years.
To be clear, that "could" is an important qualifier. The research looked at what will be technically feasible, not at what's likely happen. The Nomura Research Institute (NRI) worked in collaboration with researchers at Oxford University to come up with their findings. In 2013, Oxford professors Karl Benedikt Fray and Michael Osborn published results from a similar analysis of 702 occupations in the UK and US. The team found that 35 percent of common occupations in the UK and 47 percent of those in the US were susceptible to computerization or robotic automation.
As with any jaw-dropping, doomsday-portending headline, there aren't enough asterisks in baseball to properly contextualize the findings. Many of the jobs that exist today will likely evolve into new jobs over the next two decades. There weren't many IT professionals twenty years ago, after all.
And however disruptive it can be to specific industries at specific moments, automation hasn't correlated to job loss across the economy. In fact, technology creates more jobs than it destroys. At least, that's been the case so far, which isn't to say that this time won't be different. AI is a new beast, as Nils Nilsson argued persuasively in Pacific Standard in October.
But such arguments are necessarily speculative, which accounts for the dramatic range of seemingly credible predictions about the future of employment once machines can do a lot of the stuff currently done by humans. More to the point, these results are actually very good news for Japan, the world's oldest nation.
"Due to a shrinking population, labor shortages are predicted for Japan," write the researchers behind the Nomura Research Institute findings. "We're looking at the social repercussions of attempting to preserve the labor force by introducing AI and robots into it."
About a quarter of the Japan's population is over sixty-five, compared to 14 percent in the US and 17 percent in the UK. One of the reasons the country has led in robotics research is because robots will be soon be necessary to fill big holes in the labor force. Elder care and various service industries are particular areas of need.
In the coming decades, Japan will be a closely-watched laboratory as robots become a necessary part of daily life. The fact is that populations are aging across developed nations, and where Japan goes, countries like the US and UK are likely to follow.
IREX, the biggest robotics show in the world, wrapped up in Tokyo last week. Among the systems on display were dancing humanoids, disaster-relief bots, and automated helpers designed to make life easier for the elderly. We can fear these robots as job killers, but in Japan the engineers and researchers responsible for them are working to save a country from a looming disaster.