The Time is Nao: Does Softbank’s New Robot Signal An Era of Mass Youth Unemployment?

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Back in the mid-2000s – an era when technology seemed impossibly benign by today’s infinitely more circumspect context – our Creative Director & CSO spotted an invention that totally captivated him: a robot by the name of Qrio. Whereas most electronic humanoids of that era behaved and interacted in ways which were anything but human, Qrio – developed by the Japanese corporation Sony – possessed that barely-definable magic by which illusion can be suspended. It performed actions such as walking, climbing stairs and throwing in a way that was totally endearing and indicative of a massive future; the shelving of the Qrio project remains one of the great corporate mysteries of our time (and perhaps typifies Sony’s alarming decline).

A decade on, another Japanese corporation – the telecoms and finance giant Softbank – is installing another small, humanoid robot by the name of Nao in a select number of branches of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group from April 2015. But Nao is no ingenious prototype yet to enter production: he is being put to work as a customer assistant. Despite being just 0.58m tall and much less convincing than Qrio, Nao – which was developed by the Paris-based Softbank subsidiary Aldebaran Robotics in 2006 – has impressive technical specifications. He speaks 19 languages and can analyse customers’ emotions successfully enough to have detailed conversations with them on certain clearly-defined topics.

The development of what have been termed ‘non-human resources’ is meant to be a boon for Japan, given the country’s stubborn and possibly suicidal refusal to countenance immigration reforms to remedy its anaemic birthrate: robots such as Nao will help plug the chasms in labour force sectors such as healthcare and other service industries.

But – at least on this occasion – what is good for Japan is not necessarily good for the world. Once employers twig that large occupational categories can be largely or completely fulfilled by utilising robots, the ensuing worldwide wave of ‘deep’ automation is likely to have devastating consequences, particularly those without the educational qualifications and/or technical expertise to insulate themselves from this tsunami.

Dealing with all-too-messy humans – who require salaries, insurance and social benefits – will be an obligation that many enjoying privileged positions in power structures will be only too happy to rid themselves of. Education – which is the one weapon that can protect against this impulse – has rarely had a better justification.

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