Robots Are Constructing a Dam in Japan. Are Buildings Next?

Here is a scenario I expect to see play out increasingly over time:

To address Japan’s rapidly aging workforce and labor shortage, contractor Obayashi Corporation has turned to automation by constructing a dam almost entirely with robots

That scenario comes from a recent Article that describes the trial project. There are three massive things to unpack in that one sentence. First an aging workforce. Aging is a global phenomenon and not the exclusive challenge of Japan. For the first time in history, more of us are 65 or older than 5 or younger (see visual). Projections of our aging society envision the number of people 60 or older in the world will double by 2050 and more than triple by 2100, rising to 3.1 billion people. Here are additional projections:

  • Except Africa, by 2050 about a quarter of the world population will be 60 or older. At about 900 million now, their numbers will rise to about 3.2 billion in 2100. By 2050, one in four people living in Europe and North America could be 65 or over
  • By 2080, those 65 or older will be 29.1% of the global population — and 12.7% will be 80 or over
  • Global life expectancy is expected to increase from 72.6 years to 77.1 years in 2050. That does not factor in the potential realization of a Healthy Life Extension scenario that if realized, drives the upper range much higher

An aging society raises multiple questions: who will care for the elderly? How will it be funded when the working-age population is smaller proportionally? Who will do whatever work remains? That brings us to the second massive thing to unpack; a fall in the working age population. The most worrying figure: The world will not have sufficient working-age people to support the elderly. Currently, North America has just under four workers per retired person. Seven European countries have three, and Japan has just a bit more than two. By 2050, seven Asian countries, 24 European and four Latin American will fall below two workers per retired person, the UN says. This means “a rising fiscal burden and slower economic growth than if the population was not aging,” says Richard Jackson of the Global Aging Institute.

The last massive thing to unpack is automation. As the article describes, Japan is already planning for a world without enough workers. The automating of dam construction foreshadows what is to follow. The author describes the process as follows:

Every step of the building process involves some form of automation, which includes the initial work of establishing the foundation. Tower cranes responsible for laying down concrete in 160 square foot sections that comprise the dam’s body are controlled remotely by office computers, which also monitor the positioning of the partitions and the progress of construction. Humans will only take over the cranes in the case of an emergency.

While most of the dialog focuses on jobs lost to automation, there is another narrative in that story: a world with not enough workers. As is always the case, Balance is Critical. We must allow for the solving of our grand societal challenges, while mitigating the risk of unintended consequences. Global coordination and cooperation are critical to both sides of a balanced equation.

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