You are probably aware that Japan has some demographic challenges that it is grappling with. That is a bit of an understatement: Japan is having to deal with a rapidly falling birthrate, a continually ageing population and a shrinking workforce and overall population.
Last year a record low number of babies were born in Japan: 865,000. 2019 was also the sixth straight year in which the population declined, to fewer than 127 million people. And with the population’s large elderly cohort increasingly reach the age at which they will shuffle off this mortal coil, the population decline is set to accelerate. By the end of this century the Japanese population is projected to fall to fewer than 53 million people, well less than half of its peak in 2017 of 128 million.
Not surprisingly, the Japanese Government is not at all keen to see this current trend continue. It is deeply concerned as to how the country’s contracting workforce can meet the expanding cost of welfare especially as the population ages further.
The best solution, in a country where largescale immigration is unknown and politically fraught, is to encourage the Japanese people to have more babies. One of the barriers standing in the way of increased fecundity in Japan is the strong expectation that women do it all: raise the children; do all of the housework; and pursue their careers outside the home. The World Economic Forum’s gender equality rankings placed Japan 121st out of 153 countries, a decline of 11 places from the year before. And the Government is increasing the pressure on Japanese women: it has said it wants to encourage more women into full-time employment as a way to bolster the flagging number of workers.
Others suggest that boosting wages, especially for lower income levels, might help Japanese partner up and have children. Dr Sachiko Horguchi, a socio-cultural and medical anthropologist at Japan’s Temple University, notes that a recent report posited a link between lower income levels and a “loss of interest in romantic relationships among young Japanese adults”. (We all might like to think that we are romantics at heart, and that love will conquer all, but in the end the ability to financially support a marriage and a family is very important too!)
However, the latest tool in the fight against empty cradles is nothing to do with raising income. Instead, from next year the Japanese Government will subsidise local governments to run projects using Artificial Intelligence to pair people up. The amount involved (2bn yen or USD 19m) is not large but it is hoped that AI will perform a more sophisticated analysis of those who have signed up for matchmaking.
Currently matchmaking systems consider income and age to try and determine if two people would be compatible, but the use of AI will allow authorities to also draw on the applicant’s hobbies and values.
Perhaps robots and AI can be used to help Japan’s demographic woes, but not for getting couples together. If people are not interested in dating, then they are unlikely to put themselves into the pool to be analysed by algorithms. Instead, Dr Horiguchi suggests that affordable AI robots could be used to take over some of the childcare or household tasks to lessen the burden on women and to encourage those already partnered-up to have another baby.