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Editorial: Advance digital tech with consideration for workers

  • May 11, 2020
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

From telecommuting to remote lessons to online drinking parties, digital technology is accelerating across the world as people practice social distancing to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.


During the last pandemic, the world did not have access to low-cost videoconferencing systems. The progression of digital tech has been a tremendous driving force for the continuation of economic and social activities.


Sundar Pichai, CEO of technology giant Google LLC, predicts that even when countries are no longer in states of emergency, the world will probably not be the same as it was pre-pandemic. The reason: people will still need to avoid the “three Cs” of confined spaces, crowded places and close contact with people amid a prolonged fight against the coronavirus. At the same time, one advantage of telework is that it is easier for those in the child-rearing generation and others in similar circumstances to join the workforce.


Compared with other countries, the move to digital work in Japan has been slow. The government and business are using the current situation as a chance to catch up, and are devising lots of ideas.


The concept of prioritizing operational efficiency, in particular, stands out. When promoting telework, for example, companies’ aim of cutting down on commuting and business trip expenses, as well as the cost of renting office space and other expenditure, is evident.


Factories have been swiftly moving ahead with applying digital tech to manufacturing, having robots take over product assembly and other tasks that had been handled by seasonal factory workers. This stems from the idea that it is more profitable to use robots, which have no risk of infection, than to revise factory layouts to avoid the “three Cs” and suffer lower productivity as a result.


According to one major think tank, 49% of workers in Japan could very likely be replaced with machines or artificial intelligence. But it is feared that a rapidly digitizing economy could destabilize employment.


Some have in fact already started to voice concerns, with one worker at a call center who was not retained by the company where they had been dispatched saying, “I think I might be replaced by AI.”


Overseas, the side effects of digital tech have been debated. Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates has suggested that robots and AI be taxed in the future, and that those tax funds be used to re-educate the unemployed.


Meanwhile, in Japan, there are fears that taking digital technology too far, too fast could damage the country’s business and manufacturing culture, in which improvements are continually made within the workplace.


Japan should quickly proceed with measures that have clear advantages, such as the automation of administrative procedures and moving medical services online. At the same time, when proceeding with applying digital tech to the workplace, there is a need to pay consideration to workers worried about losing their jobs to a robot or an algorithm.

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