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Japan and the Problem and Promise of Automation (w/ Maya Horii)

by Steve Stine

If the world has a problem, technology will solve it. That’s the stance taken by many technologists and industrialists who trust that human innovation – when put to the test – will prevail. It’s the “human” part of the equation, however, that is increasingly in question.   

In Japan, for instance, where a demographic decline in working age citizens demands automation in order to fill the gap, Covid-19 has given the country further reason to invest in AI, robotics, and machine-learning wherever possible. Elsewhere in the world, where Covid has left millions unemployed, there’s rising concern that companies will pass on human employees in deference to machines.

Observing Japan to see how it’s robotic revolution takes hold and impacts people could serve as a bellwether for policy-makers elsewhere. Governments are desperate to rekindle economic growth after Covid’s devastating effects. This means encouraging corporate recovery, while reducing unemployment. In certain sectors – primarily industrial – the two may prove mutually exclusive. 

To help us understand what’s at stake, I contacted the author of the McKinsey article, Maya Horii. She’s a Partner in McKinsey’s Tokyo office and advisor to both public agencies and private enterprise. We discussed Japan’s unique set of circumstances, its declining workforce, poor productivity, and prospects for displacing human workers with machine-based alternatives.