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Can robots replace the aging workforce ?

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10th-Sep-2017       
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Joseph Chamie :
Are humanoid robots or androids a solution to declining and aging populations? Given the prospects of demographic decline and population aging coupled with growing opposition to immigration, countries are increasingly turning to and investing in advanced robotics and androids to address shrinking workforces and rising numbers of elderly.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for example, has called for a more rapid development of advanced robotics. He believes that robotics "could help the country overcome the handicap of a fast-aging populace and a declining workforce and to help the country to use robotics from large-scale factories to every corner of our economy and society".
More than 80 countries, representing 46 percent of world population, are experiencing fertility below the replacement level of about two births per woman (Figure 1). In many of those countries, including Canada, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Italy, South Korea, Spain and the United Kingdom, fertility levels have remained below replacement for several decades.
Largely as a consequence of sustained levels low fertility about 50 countries or areas are projected to have smaller populations by midcentury. Some of those countries, including Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine, will likely see their populations decline by more than 15 percent by midcentury. In addition, many countries are also experiencing rapid population aging. Due to low fertility rates and increased longevity, population age structures are becoming older than ever before. The median age of developed countries, for example, is now more than 40 years, an increase of 13 years since 1950. By midcentury the median age of about a dozen countries will be 50 years or more, including Japan (53 years), Spain (52), Italy (51) and Germany (50).
Also, in some countries, such as Greece Italy, Japan, Portugal and Spain, one in three people is expected to be 65 years and older by 2050. Consequently, potential support ratios in those countries are projected to decline to less than two people in the working ages 15 to 64 years per one elderly person aged 65 years and older (Figure 2).
At the same time that many countries are facing demographic decline and population aging, opposition to immigration is increasing among most migrant-receiving countries.  Opinion surveys report that majorities in dozens of countries, including Germany, Russia, South Africa, Turkey and the United States, consider immigration to have a "very or fairly negative impact".  In addition to rising public opposition to immigration, governments in a growing number of countries are tightening border controls, erecting fences, walls and barricades, and adopting policies to significantly restrict immigration.
Facing declining and aging populations coupled with resistance to immigration, countries are increasingly turning to and investing in advanced robotic technology to meet their labor needs and also increase productivity, reduce labor costs and improve goods and services. Recent examples of robotic technology include: a self-driving pizza delivery car; a robotic bricklayer that can lay 1,000 standard bricks in one hour, which typically takes two men about a day; and a robotic barista that can serve 120 coffees in an hour.
High robot-to-worker ratios are found in South Korea, Japan and Germany (Figure 3).  While more than half of the top ten countries in robot-to-worker ratios belong to the European Union, 75 percent of the world's robots are geographically concentrated in five countries: China, Germany, Japan, South Korea and the United States. The International Federation of Robotics forecasts that the number of industrial robots deployed worldwide will increase to around 2.6 million by 2019, which is nearly a doubling since 2015.
Advances in robot technology and artificial intelligence are contributing to the humanization of robots and the emergence of androids that look, move and act like a human being, even having a human-like body with a flesh-like appearance. In addition to being a solution to shrinking workforces, some believe that androids will be able to provide valuable services, including being personal companions for the growing numbers of elderly living alone, providing a platform for basic healthcare services and doing the dirty, dangerous and difficult work that many eschew.
Although still under development, first stage androids are becoming more apparent in warehouses, retail stores, reception/information centers, hospitals, military installations, industrial parks and television. Several years ago scientists in Japan developed the world's first news-reading android that not only had perfect language skills, but also possessed a sense of humor. Another recent example is an android developed at a research institute in Singapore that works as a university receptionist.
In the past the possibility of androids existing within human societies was limited mainly to science-fiction writers, moviemakers and futurists. More recently, scientists, innovators and industrial leaders are addressing the emergence of the transformative era of humanoid robots with artificial intelligence.
The benefits and advantages of androids or human-like robots are widely recognized by governments, businesses, the military and research centers. In addition to performing repetitive manual tasks, androids are able to converse and interact with people, provide customer service and artificial companionship, undertake dangerous assignments, potentially saving human lives, and even have sex. Also, in contrast to humans, androids don't need food or financial compensation, don't tire or require sleep, follow instructions explicitly and automatically, work without perks, and do not have feelings of fear, anger, pain or depression.
Others, however, have voiced serious concerns about the possible negative and even dangerous consequences of androids with enhanced artificial intelligence. As androids become increasingly humanlike, they are believed pose a potential threat to societies. Advanced machine learning algorithms, for example, are permitting robots to self learn and replicate themselves.
Some have also warned that advanced robotics threatens the prospect of mass unemployment, affecting everyone from drivers to sex workers. Others have also raised concerns about people getting emotionally attached to androids that provide artificial companionship. In contrast to rudimentary robotic devices, studies have reported people relating to androids as though they were human. A recent example of such emotional attachment is the Japanese male who decided to "marry" his robot.
Regarding mass unemployment, some argue that as has been the case in the past - for example, when Luddites were proved wrong - the emerging android and robotic technologies will eventually lead to more jobs and prosperity as well as improved and less costly goods and services. While many human jobs will be taken over by robots, recent evidence from Germany and the United States suggests that automation programs with robots have a positive effect on employment opportunities.
However, others counter that the development of androids and robots are coming up so rapidly and across such a broad spectrum of jobs that large numbers of workers, especially those lacking technical training and skills, are being displaced and encountering difficulties finding suitable employment. One economic study found that since 1990, each robot added to an American factory reduced employment in the surrounding areas by 6.2 workers.
In response to those concerns, some have recommended a robot tax to raise revenues to retrain those workers displaced by robots or provide them with a universal basic income if they remain unemployed. Another suggestion is that governments may be pressured by their constituents to legislate quotas for human workers.
Such suggestions, however, do not address the needs of the millions of young people seeking employment in developing countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the population aged 15 to 24 years is expected to more than double by midcentury, exceeding more than 400 million youths. Seeking employment and a better life, many young men and women are deciding to migrate illegally to the industrialized countries.
Another worrying dimension is that governments have not yet devised a body of laws, standards and regulations regarding the use of androids. Issues of android registration, taxation, liability, application and safety are just a few of the practical concerns.
More serious matters are protections against hackers, cybercriminals, terrorists, and others getting control of androids and robots that could cause disruption and harm to people, property and the environment.
More than 40 countries already have robotic programs with developed unmanned aerial bombers. In many countries the military is a prime driver in robotic and android development as it seeks to reduce risks to soldiers and acquire enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
The International Committee for Robot Arms Control fears that advances in robotics will lead to more countries involved in war, as androids and armed robot combatants replace human soldiers on the battlefield. Recently, 116 founders of robotics and AI companies from 26 countries signed a petition calling for a ban of killer robots, or lethal autonomous weapons systems, arguing that only humans should be permitted to kill humans.
While some see androids as one solution to declining and aging populations, others view it as a worrisome development that poses a potential threat to human societies. Given the profound implications of the emerging transformative era of androids, the international community of nations should address and seek to establish a global agreement or protocol on the use of androids.

(Joseph Chamie is an independent consulting demographer and a former director of the United Nations Population Division).

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