As Japan moves into its new imperial era in 2019 and many people in the country reflect on the generational change brought with time, it may be appropriate to consider nuances about AI’s potential role in Japanese society. The official translation of the Reiwa Era in English is “beautiful harmony,” and this sentiment brings to mind the beautiful possibility of coexistence between humans and AI in the coming decades of the new era. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abe has presented his vision for Society 5.0, an augmented and data-driven existence beyond the current post-industrial and information era. AI of course must play an important role in augmenting human living, and we may see its potential come to fruition during this Reiwa Era.
One of Japan’s greatest social problems is the double burden of its graying and shrinking society. Japan is one of the most aged societies of the world, with more than one quarter of its population over 65, in addition to having one of the lowest fertility rates. AI could help mitigate the social pressures of a smaller labor workforce by automating jobs and enabling robots and algorithms to assist in doing the tasks needed typically done by a human laborer. Companies are already researching and developing the potential of technology, robots, and AI to help with caring for its elderly people, such as therapeutic seal robot dolls for providing emotional support.
As this transition happens, there may be an ongoing loss of jobs or the feeling of strain from uncertainty with the current generation of workers as they adapt to an AI-driven world. However, the Abe government can help prepare Japanese society for this reality by ensuring its workers and young generation has the skills it needs to continue dignified work in career paths that will not be easy to automate or replace. In doing so, having AI replace jobs could actually become a boon to Japanese society instead of the usual doom rhetoric that we hear about when people are already losing jobs due to automation. This would add to the “beautiful harmony” of AI and Japanese working together in unison for greater prosperity.
Another way in which AI and humans can beautifully coexist is considering how algorithms, data, and AI can be used to shape our belief systems and identities throughout the social fabric of Japan. As Japan prepares for hosting the 2020 Olympics, it must consider ways in which the Japanese populace can understand and be open to foreigners visiting, working, and residing in Japan. In a post-truth world with information being created by anyone on the Internet and called “facts” or “fake news,” there is great potential for AI to hurt or help Japan’s development into a society open to inward migration as it questions its demographic future. Algorithms and AI dictate what we see online through a feedback loop based on our clicks and online patterns. Through writing codes to consider how Japanese people can be nudged to more open-mindedness towards foreigners, it may be possible for AI to empower Japanese society and lessen the impact of its demographic conundrum. A Lancet article discussed the necessity of immigration for “beautiful harmony,” and it is possible to conceive that AI can harmonize the existence between foreigners and Japanese as AI is intertwined into society.
At this time, it remains to be seen whether AI will seamlessly integrate and achieve the Prime Minister’s vision of Society 5.0 for the better, brighter, and more prosperous Japan that is needed to stabilize the population decline and graying of its society. There is incredible potential at the dawn of this new Reiwa Era, and the “beautiful harmony” between AI and society would be a positive outcome not only for Japan but also the rest of humanity.
Author: Lisa Hartwig,
PhD student in Community and Global Health at the University of Tokyo.