Robotics vs. Helotics

Robotics vs. Helotics

(Will Japan be the mid-21st century superpower?)

by John Derbyshire (July 2006)



Let’s start this month’s column with a movie. If your PC and internet connection are happy to play a moderate-sized video, here is the movie. If not, I’ll just tell you that the star of this movie is a gadget named Robomow**, made by Friendly Robotics, a firm based in Kadima, Israel, founded by two former F-16 pilots for the Israeli Air Force. Robomow is a robot lawnmower. It labors away day and night keeping your grass neat and short. When its battery gets low, it heads to the recharger and plugs itself in. When fully recharged, it unplugs itself and continues its task.

Household robots of this kind have been around for some years, of course. Friendly Robotics was founded in 1995, and even that makes them five years younger than iRobot, manufacturers of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, the most successful domestic robot so far.   Roomba has been selling well in the U.S. for four years now, with over two million units shipped. Robots for industrial and military uses go back further. Production-line factory workers began losing their jobs to welding and assembling robots in the late 1970s, and the Wheelbarrow robot began saving the lives of bomb disposal specialists half a decade before that. Further back yet go the robots of our imagination, through the tales of Isaac Asimov that enlivened my own childhood, via Karel Capek’s 1921 story “R.U.R.,” which actually gave us the word “robot,” to the 16th-century golem legends of Central Europe.


Announcements that we are approaching some technical turning-point or other are always hazardous. That the capabilities of robots have not, in a third of a century, advanced much from spot welding and grass cutting, might suggest that getting machines to perform any really complicated physical tasks is extremely difficult. So it is, especially if you want some reliability and safety in the performance. 


Technological progress rarely goes at a steady pace, though. It has its spurts and leaps, generally driven by force of necessity, and there are signs that the advance of robotics may be about to speed up dramatically. Another third of a century from now, Robomow and the Roomba (and its pal the Scoomba, which will mop your kitchen floor for you) may look as quaintly primitive as the wire-and-canvas biplanes of WW1 looked to the jet pilots of 1950. Necessity, well-known as the mother of invention, may be about to go into labor.


*    *    *    *    *


The force of necessity in this case will be—in fact, as we shall see in a moment, already is—the Great Demographic Plunge. Modernity has now seeped into all but the most remote and tradition-bound societies of the world, one result being that few women anywhere are willing to comply with the old one-pregnancy-a-year pattern of procreation.    Fertility rates are going off a cliff. This is true everywhere, though the mathematics of demography means that the effect in actual population numbers can take a while to work through. Population can swell even as fertility declines, because babies born during the higher-fertility period take twenty years to join the fertile population. Still, fertility rates win in the end, and they are dropping world-wide. Mexico, which was averaging seven births per family in the 1970s, is now down to just over two. Even the Middle East has declining fertility, with 1970 vs. 2005 fertility rates of 6.6 vs. 2.9 for Egypt, 6.8 vs. 1.8 for Iran, 7.3 vs. 4.0 for Saudi Arabia, and so on.


Some nations will go off the demographic cliff before others, of course. You can make a case that the still-increasing populations of regions like the Middle East and Indonesia are demographic threats to the now-or-soon-declining populations of regions like Europe and northeast Asia. No right-wing ranter can get through a column nowadays without at least a passing whine about Our Demographic Deficit: not Mark Steyn, not the War Nerd, not me.  


Perhaps we make too much of this. Certainly there are other factors in play. Military clashes, let alone civilizational ones, are rarely decided by demography alone. The Sweden of Charles XII had only one tenth the population of Peter the Great’s Russia, yet Charles gave Peter a run for his money, and his kingdom was not overwhelmed even when Peter triumphed at last. Sweden is still with us, for better or worse (see below). The steppe nomads who terrorized medieval Europe, and stole entire regions from it, were demographically far inferior to their victims. Even more sensationally, early-Victorian Britain, pop. 25m, easily trounced late-Qing China, pop. 350m, in the Opium Wars, in spite of being handicapped by 8,000-mile-long lines of communication.


One important factor in the last two of those encounters was decadence on the part of Byzantium and China, respectively—a sort of civilizational tiredness, and the complacency induced by too much gazing backwards at a long and glittering history. That is what we conservatives worry about when we contemplate Europe’s position vis-à-vis the Moslem world. Whether the Europe of today is really as far gone in decadence as 11th-century Byzantium or 19th-century China is a matter of opinion. So, for that matter, is the question of whether the Islamia of today really has the gut-busting vitality of those bumptious Seljuk Turks and Victorian Britons. 


The example of the Opium Wars, at any rate, suggests a possible rule for figuring out which nation is likely to become Top Dog in any historical epoch. Britain was able to do to China what she did, and to then dominate the 19th century, by virtue of having been the first nation to accomplish an industrial revolution. Assuming that all nations were bound to have industrial revolutions sooner or later, there was a huge prize waiting for the nation that had it first—even if that nation was one of modest population and inconvenient location, like Britain.


Since demographic collapse seems as inevitable a feature of the 21st century as industrialization was of the 19th, it may be that the nation that dominates the coming era will be the one that gets through that inevitable demographic transformation first, and comes out the other side. Which nation will that be?


*    *    *    *    *


Japan was the first important nation to go over the fertility-rate cliff, passing downward through replacement level—2.1 children per woman—in 1960, to a present 1.3. The actual population of Japan began to decline last year. The Japanese are falling into the demographic black hole ahead of the rest of us. This is a topic of endless worried discussion in Japan. The government there has tried to encourage women to have more children, so far without any noticeable effect. If you read much political commentary, you will be familiar with all the gloomy predictions about the impact of aging, graying populations on current economies and welfare systems.


However, if it is really the case that every other nation will face this issue in the coming decades, then the Japanese are, in a sense, ahead of the game. They may be dropping into a demographic black hole; but there are physicists who argue that falling into a black hole does not mean utter annihilation—that, in fact, you may pass right through the black hole and out into another place***. If that’s right, the Japanese will get to that place, and adjust to it, ahead of the rest of us.


What form will the adjustment take? There are all kinds of speculations. Longer working lives seem to be inevitable, with much less indulgence of the old. The word “old” itself will change meaning, very likely with the help of pharmacological perk-up aids to mind and body. Our grandchildren may think of 45 as young and 70 as middle-aged. The health fanatics’ slogan “Live long, die fast” may come to represent the norm—no bad thing, in my opinion.  


And then there will be robotics. With a shortage of young hands willing to do low-paid physical chores, the robots will come into their own. The Japanese are definitely ahead of the game here, with the South Koreans (whose fertility rate is even a tad lower than Japan’s) close behind. “Japanese industrial firms are racing to build humanoid robots as domestic helpers for the elderly, and South Korea has set a goal that 100% of households should have domestic robots by 2020.” That’s from a report in the June 10th Economist


The Europeans are waking up to robotics, too, with a series of European Robotics Symposiums started up this year. The first symposium was held in Palermo, Sicily, in March. One of the participants, Dr. Henrik Christensen of Sweden (I told you we’d get back to Sweden), got my attention, and a paragraph in National Review’s “The Week,” with his claim that robot sex partners are in our near future. As Dr. Christensen says: “People are willing to have sex with inflatable dolls, so initially anything that moves will be an improvement.” 


(I had better warn readers that if you raise the topic of robotic sex in a room full of married American males, you will be greeted with many anguished cries of: “Been doing it for years!” Ladies should not take offense. This is just a harmless and very common male way of venting about the general frustrations of married life. Some years ago a business colleague of mine, whom I knew to have been very happily married for over twenty years, had some major work done on his property, work that required shutting off the power for several hours. The contractor suggested that the homeowner might want to give a thought to the food in his freezer, perhaps transferring it to a neighbor’s freezer. “Nah,” replied my colleague, “I’ll just put the wife to bed and pack the food around her.”)


Sexbots illustrate the ethical issues we shall come up against with robotics. What, for example, would be the ethics of selling child-sized robots to pedophiles, or four-legged robots to zoophiles? And while I can’t imagine that any male has ever got into a life-threatening situation with an inflatable sex toy, women might be more vulnerable. Remember Jane Fonda and the Orgasmotron.


*    *    *    *    *


Japan might, therefore, be on track to become the superpower of the mid-21st century, having by then put behind her problems the rest of us will still be struggling with. It is no use arguing that a superpower needs big armies, which an older, grayer population won’t be able to supply. Military affairs are roboticizable too****.


It would be nice to think that we, the U.S.A., will be up there with the Japanese and Koreans, winning the technological game. Unfortunately we do not feel the pressure of necessity as keenly as the East Asians do. One reason is that our fertility rate has not dropped as dramatically low as theirs. Another is that our attitude to immigration is much more generous than theirs. 


Actually these two reasons are one, because while native American fertility is now below replacement level, the fertility rate of legal immigrants is about a third higher, and that of illegal immigrants higher yet. Immigration into Japan and South Korea is essentially nil. This is not because nobody wants to go and live in those countries—several hundred million Chinese, Filipinos, and Indonesians would love to—but because the Japanese and Koreans don’t think immigration would be good for their countries. They prefer robots over helots.


We might ask ourselves whether that preference might not, in the long run, prove to be a wise one. Our fathers mowed their own lawns. We hire gangs of helots—illegal immigrants—to mow our lawns. Since the demographic crunch will dry up the supply of helot labor everywhere, our children, in their middle age, will likely have their lawns mowed by some descendant of Robomow.   


The East Asians, however, with their aversion to cheap immigrant labor, and their fascination with robotics, will have got there long before us. With the demographic transition behind them, and, one assumes, their economic inefficiencies long since corrected, they will be sailing under clear skies through the mid-21st century, while we are still fighting our way through demographic gales.   



** The promotional material also calls the gadget “RoboMower,” I don’t know why.


*** There need to be some very special conditions here—your black hole needs to be rotating, for instance—and even then the physics isn’t conclusive. There is also the drawback that the entire process, seen from the outside, may require an infinite amount of time. But heck, I’m just making a loose analogy.


**** Though we had better take care not to end up in the situation of the humans in Philip K. Dick’s story “The Defenders,” who retreat to underground caves when the earth is devastated by a long war, leaving robots on the surface to continue the war. The robots keep sending down film reports of tremendous battles and huge destruction wrought upon the enemy by the new weapons the humans spend all their time inventing. After several decades without either side looking like winning the war, a party of men gets up to ground level. They find that the robots, having called off hostilities the moment the last hatch was sealed, and agreeing that mankind could never be trusted not to start things again, have been spending their time faking their reports as interestingly as possible.



John Derbyshire’s most recent book is Unknown Quantity: A Real And Imaginary History of Algebra, published by Joseph Henry Press in May.

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