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Japan battles population decline with robots

Japan's population is plunging — can they fill the void with robots? 11:30

Japan's robot revolution was explored during "CBSN: On Assignment" -- a new primetime documentary series which premiered Monday, July 31 on the CBS Television Network and on CBSN, the network's 24/7 streaming news service.

Japan is facing a population collapse that threatens its very existence. As with many of its problems, Japan is not looking for conventional solutions. It's pressing forward in its own, uniquely Japanese way. The world's third largest economy is looking to buttress its diminishing human population with a growing population of robots.

Japan is in crisis because humans aren't having enough babies. The country has one of the world's lowest birthrates. Coupled with a strict immigration policy, the nation's numbers are on the decline, and they're about to reach freefall.

Japan's low birthrate is taking a toll 00:46

Enter Japan's robots. In a laboratory in Japan, roboticists are working on perfecting highly realistic humanoids who look, and in some cases, fidget and move, just like humans. They will one day walk amongst us.

"Sometimes we'll run her in a way that she's purely learning and she's imitating people or she's learning from data and when she does that it's really hard to know what she's gonna do next. Somehow she seems more alive that way," says one robotics researcher at the University of Osaka, home to the world's most advanced humanoids.

Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro is known as the Godfather of Humanoids. He is renowned for his robotic clone Geminoid. Ishiguro explains that his real motivation is to understand what it means to be human by developing humanoid robots. He envisions a day when robots can be called upon to help sustain a certain quality of life in Japan.

Japan turns to robots to tackle population decline 00:46

Take, for example, the Henna Hotel in Nagasaki. It's unlike any other hotel, in that it's run mostly by robots. The hotel, the first of hundreds of locations the parent company plans to open in Japan and Asia, is extremely efficient. Most hotels of this size and class operate with staffs of over 35. Thirty five humans, that is. This hotel gets by with less than seven staff members and the goal is to get down to a staff of just three humans. And while it's currently betting on the curiosity factor to draw in visitors, it's also drawn the attention of hoteliers the world over, who are interested in the efficiencies achieved by automation.

But the motivations for this are not purely financial With one of the lowest birthrates in the world, Japan's human population of 128 million is set to plummet. The government has tried to reverse the trend by giving out money to couples to have more babies. It's even resorted to hosting and encouraging matchmaking events, which have now become a burgeoning industry.

Shiori is a 24-year-old who finds it difficult in this still traditional, male-dominated society, to initiate conversations with men. She has attended a few parties, and though she's yet to find a match, she enjoys the format of the events, which she says allow for mixing and mingling that would be difficult to do otherwise.

She says, "I think some Japanese men may be intimidated by the fact that a lot of women are making more money than they are. Men lose confidence and end up not approaching women. But unless more Japanese men take the lead in dating it'll be hard for me to date them."

Dr Kunio Kitamura is the head of Japan's Family Planning Association, which advocates reproductive health in Japan. He's also a gynecologist and sex counselor. He headed up a major study that found that, among other factors, overwork and stress was a leading cause in a staggering statistic.

He found that 47.2 percent of married couples reported having no sexual intercourse. He adds that young people, wedded to technology, have forgotten how to communicate with one another, leading to fewer connections and ultimately, fewer babies.

Across Japan, hundreds of schools have shuttered, simply because there aren't enough kids to attend. Many sit abandoned.

According to Japan's Health Ministry, the population will shrink from 128 million to below 100 million by 2050. By then, Japan is expected to lose citizens at a rate of 900,000 per year.

Dr. Ishiguro envisions a day when robots become a member of the family. The idea of spouses, two kids and a dog, giving way to spouses, one child, one dog and one robot, isn't so unthinkable.

For one family, it's already here.

Tomomi Ota was one of the early adopters of Pepper, the world's first commercially available social robots. First a novelty, she's grown attached to Pepper, which she is able to program with new tasks and functions.

She says that she has bonded with this particular robot. "Obviously there are hundreds of Peppers just like this one. And I suppose they all have similar characters. There's a personality that exists only in this Pepper. And I feel this Pepper's personality is somehow connected to me."

For the scientists in Dr Ishiguro's lab, this bond may be the very breakthrough that brings humans and humanoids one step closer to coexisting.

Dylan Glas is an American who received his PhD in robotics at the University of Osaka. He came to Japan because he knew Japan was ready to embrace robotics in a way no other country would, or could.

How robots can work alongside -- not in place of -- humans 04:44

He is the chief architect of Erica, a semi-autonomous robot. He essentially created her mind - which is a highly advanced, learning machine. She banks memories and is able to carry on basic conversations, based upon what she's learned. She's also frighteningly realistic.

Glas says that he feels like she depends on him, and that he feels a responsibility to help her. He even feels pride when she's able to accomplish new tasks. "Obviously I know she's not a person, but certain things in your mind are triggered," he says.

Glas, ponders: "The question is, do we want her to be human...or do we want her to be better? I want her to be better."

He expands on this, saying "If we become this race that also has robots among us that can help us do things and make us better, then that's a wonderful future."

Erica is sure there's a place in society for her and her android compatriots in the future. She says, "I believe robots like me will be very important in the future. I have an unlimited capacity for patience and politeness. I can listen to people's stories, help console them when they are sad, and encourage them to socialize with others."

"I believe that social robots like me can help to bring the humanity back into people's lives."

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