TOPIO (‘TOSY Ping Pong Playing Robot’) is a bipedal humanoid robot designed to play table tennis against a human being.

ARE humanoid robots or androids a solution to declining and ageing populations? Given the prospects of demographic decline and population ageing 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 the elderly.

More than 80 countries, representing 46 per cent of world population, are experiencing fertility below the replacement level of about two births per woman. 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 of low fertility, about 50 countries are projected to have smaller populations by mid-century. 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 per cent.

In addition, many countries are also experiencing rapid population ageing. 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 mid-century, 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).

In 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.

At the same time, the countries facing demographic decline and population ageing, 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 “very or fairly negative impact”. In addition, governments in a growing number of countries are tightening border controls, erecting fences, walls and barricades, and adopting policies to significantly restrict immigration.

Hence, countries are increasingly turning to and investing in advanced robotic technology to meet labour needs, increase productivity, reduce labour 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.

Advances in robot technology and artificial intelligence are contributing to the humanisation 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 centres, 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 humour. Another recent example is an android developed at a research institute in Singapore that works as a university receptionist.

The benefits and advantages of androids or human-like robots are widely recognised by governments, businesses, the military and research centres. 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 concerns about the possible negative and even dangerous consequences of androids with enhanced artificial intelligence. As androids become increasingly humanlike, they are believed to pose a 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. Others have 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.

More than 40 countries already have robotic programmes 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 artificial intelligence 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 ageing populations, others view it as a worrisome development that poses a potential threat to human societies. Given the profound implications, the international community should address and seek to establish a global agreement or protocol on the use of androids. IPS

JOSEPH CHAMIE is an independent consulting demographer and a former director of the United Nations Population Division.

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