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Job-stealing robots stoke concerns in Japan about inequality

Pew study finds many believe economy will prosper at the expense of the people

Japan has more than 3 industrial robots installed in factories for every 100 workers.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Japan is famous for its innovation in productivity-boosting automation and lifelike robots like Sony's robo-puppy aibo, but a new study finds that many Japanese believe these advances are coming at the expense of the humans that made them.

According to the study released by the Pew Research Center Thursday, which surveyed public opinion on job automation in 10 developed and emerging economies, 89% of Japanese respondents think robots and computers will either "definitely" or "probably" take over many jobs now done by humans in the next 50 years. Only 1% of those asked answered confidently that such an outcome would "definitely not happen."

Japanese were more positive about the impact of job automation on the economy than respondents in any other country, however. In Japan, 74% said the economy would be more efficient with robots and computers taking up more of the work, while only 33% of their Italian counterparts expect economic benefits.

Few believe those benefits will extend to all, the study found, as 83% of Japanese expect the gap between the rich and the poor to become "much worse than it is today."

Compared with other countries, Japan is relatively less worried that people will have trouble finding jobs in a highly automated workplace. While 91% of Greeks fear for their job security, a slightly lower 74% of Japanese respondents share their concerns -- the lowest figures among the nine countries asked a question about whether robots would make it harder to find jobs.

Already, Japan has more than 3 installed industrial robots in factories for every 100 workers, Pew says.

A June 2018 report in Finance & Development, a publication from the International Monetary Fund, may provide some insight into the slightly lower level of concern in Japan compared to other countries.

With a declining birth rate -- it is estimated that the population dropped by a record-breaking 264,000 in 2017 -- and a labor force projected to decline by 24 million by 2050, Japan is one place where robots may fill a gap left by humans.

For all the concerns, "automation and increased use of robotics have had an overall positive impact on domestic employment and income growth" in Japan, the IMF report suggests. "Notably, these findings ... are the opposite of results of a similar exercise based on U.S. data," the report pointed out, adding that "it appears that Japan's experience may differ significantly from that of other advanced economies."

"With labor literally disappearing and dim prospects for relief through higher immigration, automation and robotics can fill the labor gap and result in higher output and greater income rather than replacement of the human workforce," it said.

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