Our robot future

What you thought you were getting:

What you’re actually getting:

Staffing a Japanese hotel with hundreds of robots didn’t work out quite as well as expected:

It turns out that even robots are having a tough time holding down a job. Japan’s Henn-na “Strange” Hotel has laid off half its 243 robots after they created more problems than they could solve, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

One of the layoffs included a doll-shaped assistant in each hotel room called Churi. Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa can answer questions about local businesses’ opening and closing times, but Churi couldn’t. When hotel guests asked Churi “What time does the theme park open?” it didn’t have a good answer. That was a problem because Churi was supposed to help ameliorate the Strange Hotel’s staff shortage by substituting in for human workers.

Others on the chopping block:

• Two velociraptor robots positioned at check-in were also decommissioned because human workers essentially had to do their jobs for them and photocopy guests’ passports manually.

• Two robot luggage carriers could only reach about 24 of the over 100 rooms in the hotel and failed in rain or snow. They would also often get stuck trying to pass by each other.

Remember this is Japan we’re talking about. If they haven’t figured this out yet, nobody can.

Still, there’s something gratifying about knowing that even robots can get laid off.

Luttwak attack

For your amusement and edification, a link dump of interviews with, and an essay by, the great strategist Edward Luttwak, aka the Machiavelli of Maryland.

First, an interview with Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun in four parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.

The interview addresses the emerging US-China Cold War and the role Japan will/can play in it. Excerpt:

Maybe China is trying to make allies and friends through One Belt One Road Initiative?

Good luck to them. Good luck to them because that will not help them with Malaysia — Malaysia has caused them a bit of a problem — nor with Indonesia, nor with the Philippines, nor with Japan.

The only country which the Chinese can get is Korea — South Korea. The South Koreans do not like being independent. They were under Chinese rule, then they were under Japanese rule, then they were under American rule, and they don’t like to be independent. They just don’t.

Not everybody likes to be independent. They are too divided themselves. They are more comfortable having somebody else. So, the South Koreans are willing to go under the Chinese rule.

The only reason they don’t do it is because of North Korea. North Korea is the protector of Korean independence, not South Korea.

If the South Koreans were interested in being an independent power, they would not be quarreling with Japan, given the fact that their security depends on Japan 100%. The Americans could do nothing in Korea without Japanese cooperation. So, the fact that they are anti-Japanese means that they are not interested in real foreign policy, they are not interested in being independent, and so they can afford to shout about comfort women and this and that because they are not serious. They are not serious about it.

One of our problems in Korea is that we don’t like North Korean nuclear weapons, but North Korean nuclear weapons guarantee the independence of North Korea and therefore guarantee that Chinese influence cannot extend over the Korean Peninsula. Because if it were up to South Korea, it would [allow Chinese influence].

You know, the South Koreans are not interested in resisting Chinese domination because they are not interested in being independent. The Vietnamese are determined to be independent of China and they are quite confident that they can defeat any Chinese action against them. The South Koreans are not confident, but also they are not interested in defending. They are really not interested in being independent. Otherwise, they wouldn’t behave the way they do.

Right. That might not be not good news for the United States and Japan. The common perception is that, in order to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue, we need some kind of trilateral cooperation including South Korea.

Listen, South Korea faces immediate military dangers from North Korea. For example, their rockets — there are cheap rockets aimed at the Seoul area. Today, there are anti-rocket systems that are not expensive and work very well. South Korea doesn’t buy them. Today, you can buy anti-rocket interceptors.

Like Iron Dome?

Like Iron Dome. You can go and buy it, okay? You can go to Lawson’s and you buy it.

Why don’t they buy it? Because they are not really interested in self-defense.

When they have money, they do something like build a helicopter carrier and call it “Dokdo.” Do they need a helicopter carrier against North Korea? No.

So, in other words, their actions are not the actions of people who either want to defend themselves or to be independent. They don’t.

They just want to transition profitably from being protected by the United States to being protected by China. That is the only thing that they are interested in.

Not everybody wants to be independent. In that sense, the North Koreans are. Because of the politics of the Kim family, they want to be independent.

But South Korea does nothing.

Luttwak’s intriguing conclusion: a divided Korean peninsula with North Korea in possession of nukes may be the best possible scenario for the US.

Next, a review of the book Japan in the American Century in the London Review of Books:

With [Prime Minister Shinzo Abe] that means much more than phrase-making, as Pyle explains in detail: his Japan now accepts real responsibilities, e.g. to repel any attempt by China to act on its fanciful claim to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea instead of begging the Americans to do so, e.g. preserving a dialogue with Putin in order to give him a reason for limiting Russia’s support for China (at one point Obama called Abe to try to persuade him to cancel an upcoming meeting, but he didn’t budge). It was not just a question of asserting personal leadership. To change long-settled habits of passivity, Abe established a National Security Council that is not just a gathering place for representatives of the foreign, defence and intelligence bureaucracies, as in most other countries, but an actual policy-making body operated by its own staff, the National Security Secretariat. It has been remarkably effective from the start, formulating Japan’s first post-1945 national security strategy and leading successful negotiations with the Chinese.

Finally, a lengthy interview on China and the logic of strategy in War on the Rocks. Excerpt:

Brad: So you’re the National Security Advisor to the new president, we see what China has done over the time that Xi has been in power, what should the U.S. policy toward China be?

Edward: Well it has to be engagement, but of a new kind. It’s an engagement in which United States simply becomes extremely positive on everything positive, and extremely harsh on anything negative. The famous, or perhaps not-so-famous Micron case in Taiwan, where a Fujian regional authority invests money to build a copy of a Micron plant, a shadow plant. And then they go and hire, offer triple salaries to any Micron employee who comes over to them carrying a laptop or server, or memory stick or whatever it is with Micron information. They get caught by doing all …

That should have led to a drastic response while at the same time trying to be positive when anything can be positive. In other words, one has to have a duality.

Brad: What would a drastic response look like?

Edward: Well a drastic response is very simple. To this day, the People’s Republic of China, with its many accomplishments, cannot produce an integrated circuit that is even remotely competitive. No Chinese intellectual property, integrated circuit or chip … as you know super computers, laptops, phones, all of what we call electronics, anything you’re going to build artificial intelligence on, does rest on integrated circuits or microprocessors or chips or whatever you call them. Those things, in order to be competitive, not just commercially but functional, for things like don’t generate so much heat that they melt down your battery kind of thing, those things, the Chinese are not able to do without using foreign intellectual capital and they can’t manufacture them. They have to be manufactured by Taiwan Semiconductor Corporation or the other people who can work on what’s called 7 nm, which is seven nanometers, which is seven billionths of a meter, right? They can’t do it.

The other B&R

Proposed Long Thanh International Airport in Vietnam

Proposed Long Thanh International Airport in Vietnam

China’s Belt and Road infrastructure drive is still in high gear, but when the pedal hits the metal, Japan appears to be kicking China to the curb in Southeast Asia:

(Bloomberg) — Japan is still winning the Southeast Asia infrastructure race against China, with pending projects worth almost one and a half times its rival, according to the latest data from Fitch Solutions.

Japanese-backed projects in the region’s six biggest economies — Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam — are valued at $367 billion, the figures show. China’s tally is $255 billion. […]

The latest Fitch figures, provided in an emailed response to Bloomberg, count only pending projects — those at the stages of planning, feasibility study, tender and currently under construction. Fitch data in February 2018 put Japan’s investment at $230 billion and China’s at $155 billion.

Vietnam is by far the biggest focus for Japan’s infrastructure involvement, with pending projects worth $209 billion — more than half of Japan’s total. That includes a $58.7 billion high-speed railway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

Those are pending projects, mind you – they may not actually happen. Like China’s nuclear ambitions along the B&R:

China could build as many as 30 overseas nuclear reactors through its involvement in the “Belt and Road” initiative over the next decade, a senior industry official told a meeting of China’s political advisory body this week.

Wang Shoujun, a standing committee member of the China People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), told delegates on Wednesday that China needed to take full advantage of the opportunities provided by “Belt and Road” and give more financial and policy support to its nuclear sector.

Stay tuned…

Japan’s Belt and Road

Abe and Modi in 2016

In light of a certain state visit ongoing in Tokyo, I nominate this as the fact of the day (emphasis mine):

While Japan’s “lost decades” and China’s rise have led most observers to overlook Japan’s role in Southeast and South Asia, the country has remained an important source of development assistance, public lending, and private investment across the region, particularly as Japanese companies have extended their supply chains deeper into Asia. At the end of 2016, Japan’s stock of foreign direct investment in major Asian economies (excluding China and Hong Kong) was nearly $260 billion, exceeding China’s $58.3 billion. It is undeniable that Japan has increasingly had to jockey with China for high-profile projects as China’s footprint across Southeast and South Asia has grown. But Japan’s longstanding relationships and its long record of private and public investment across the region make it a worthy competitor with China.

Japan’s Belt and Road, particularly with US backing, could give China’s massive trade and infrastructure strategy a serious run for its money. And Japan is still the world’s third-largest economy…

Paralyzed people in Japan controlling robot waiters with their eyes

A brilliant and inventive use of robots gives disabled people a new form of gainful employment in Japan:

On 26 November, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held in the Nippon Foundation Building in Akasaka, Tokyo for a very special kind of cafe.

Called Dawn ver.β, it’s staffed entirely with robot waiters. While these days that’s hardly something new, these aren’t mere robots.

Developed by Ory, a startup that specializes in robotics for disabled people, the OriHime-D is a 120 cm (4-foot) tall robot that can be operated remotely from a paralyzed person’s home. Even if the operator only has control of their eyes, they can command OriHime-D to move, look around, speak with people, and handle objects.

Very cool. All we need now are remote-controlled robots that stand around all day drinking coffee and reminding their employees that they’re gonna need those TPS reports, mmmkay?

We don’t need no Anglicisms

Takanawa Gateway station

Tokyo denizens push back against an attempt by the operator of the city’s most important railway line to saddle them with an unwanted English word:

A growing number of people say they dislike the name of a new station in Tokyo, set to be called Takanawa Gateway, and are calling for the station’s name to be changed after its recent announcement by railway operator East Japan Railway Co.

The name of the station, set to open on Tokyo’s Yamanote Line in 2020, was chosen from a list of suggested names submitted by and voted on by the public. That list was compiled from about 64,000 entries, more than 13,000 of which were unique.

After the votes were gathered, the entries were published according to the number of votes they had received. Takanawa Gateway, with 36 votes, was ranked 130th on the list. For comparison, Takanawa — the entry that came in first place — received 8,398 votes and Shibaura, in second place, got 4,265 votes, according to JR East. The final decision has led many to question why the company asked for recommendations at all.

A petition created Friday by columnist Mineko Nomachi, titled “Please change the name Takanawa Gateway,” had already garnered more than 12,000 signatures as of Monday afternoon.

“Gateway” is hard for many Japanese to pronounce. It requires five syllables: “ge-e-to-we-i.”

Proving that bureaucracy is stupid, the company is pushing back against the public:

JR East does not intend to rename the train station, according to Yusuke Yamawaki from the firm’s public relations department, adding that they did not decide on the name merely by the number of votes it received.

One detail from the story struck me:

“Not only is the name Takanawa Gateway so long it will lead to clerical mistakes, it doesn’t suit the region or the Yamanote Line, and therefore should be changed,” Nomachi wrote on the petition’s homepage. “People feel that it’s outdated to stick foreign words onto the end of names for no reason.”

If it’s true that the Japanese are losing their enthusiasm for “Engrish,” that would be another micro-indicator that globalization has shifted into reverse gear.

‘Member when a lot of people confidently believed that national identity was weakening due to the free flow of information, people, money and goods across borders? I ‘member that. Good times.

Then again:

With the government set to create a new immigration agency in April, some officials in Tokyo are already envisioning a day where it could be further upgraded into a ministry.

As the country looks to bring in more foreign workers to address a severe labor shortage, the Immigration Bureau will next year become an agency under the Justice Ministry, following the approval of a law by the Diet on Saturday. […]

For now, there is concern about potential understaffing at the new immigration agency. The government expects some 340,000 people will obtain a new visa for lower-skilled workers in the first five years.

Oh, and speaking of trains in Japan, this is cool:

The most isolated railway station in Western Japan, Tsubojiri station, 坪尻駅, on Shikoku Island. Located at the bottom of a deep mountain valley, there is no road to access this, only a steep mountain footpath. Very beautiful. #TrainTwitter

Tsubojiri station Japan

Ancient Japanese inn

This traditional Japanese inn (ryokan) has been run by the same family for 46 generations. When it was built, in the year 718, the Tang dynasty ruled China, Islam was still expanding into Western Europe and Charlemagne had not yet been born:

 

“To keep this ryokan in this ever changing world, that’s our priority. So sometimes, we have to sacrifice family.”

From the creator of the video, Fritz Schumann:

Houshi Ryokan was founded around 1,300 years ago and it has always been managed by the same family since then. It is the oldest still running family business in the world.

This ryokan (a traditional japanese style hotel) was built over a natural hot spring in Awazu in central Japan in the year 718. Until 2011, it held the record for being the oldest hotel in the world.

Houshi Ryokan has been visited by the Japanese Imperial Family and countless great artists over the centuries. Its buildings were destroyed by natural disasters many times, but the family has always rebuilt. The garden as well as some parts of the hotel are over 400 years old.

Mending fences

The first state visit by a Japanese leader to China in seven years suggest that the two countries, which allegedly have deep-seated mutual animosity, are in the process of strengthening ties:

What Happened: China and Japan signed multiple agreements intended to strengthen bilateral ties during the first day of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s official visit to China, the South China Morning Post reported Oct. 26. Both countries will cooperate on roughly 50 third-country infrastructure projects and agreed to resume currency swaps. Additionally, they will further discuss joint East China Sea energy cooperation and China’s lifting of food import restrictions following the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

Why It Matters: Both China and Japan are recalibrating their strategies toward each other as they look to hedge against uncertainties as well as increasing trade protectionism from the United States.

This makes sense; as the neoliberal world order falls apart, regional trade blocs will emerge and solidify, and Japan and China, with their proximity and shared Confucian heritage, can be expected to align more closely.

Stratfor argues, however, that any Sino-Japanese rapprochement is complicated by China’s maritime ambitions, which clash with Japan’s interests as an island nation. Japan is also expanding its activities in the South China Sea, recently sending a submarine to conduct drills there for the first time. The duo may need to remain frenemies for a while.

US back on top of competitiveness ranking

Some good economic news for the US. Also, Japan is up to #5 from #9 last year:

After a decadelong absence, the U.S. has regained the distinction of most competitive country in the world, according to the World Economic Forum. In fact, only Japan made a bigger improvement of all 140 countries in the survey.

“Economic recovery is well under way, with the global economy projected to grow almost 4% in 2018 and 2019,” said the report, which measures economies by 98 indicators to determine how close they are to the ideal state of competitiveness.

More on Japan’s economic recovery.

Daily links: Geopolitics and Tom Cruise

US teams up with Japan and Australia to invest in Asian infrastructure projects. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has competition.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces $113 million in new technology, energy and infrastructure projects in emerging Asia as part of Trump’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy.

Generals from the rival Koreas meet at the border to ease military tensions.

But there’s still a long and difficult road ahead with North Korea. “Washington and Pyongyang, however, are not the only players. Racing against a clock of its own, Seoul will aim to drive Trump and Kim toward an early trilateral summit to declare an end to the Korean War as a first step toward peace, fueled by President Moon Jae-in’s determination to go down in history as the peacemaker.”

Professor Stephen Cohen points out that in early 1986, President Ronald Reagan met alone with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for about two and a half hours, during which they discussed abolishing nuclear weapons, paving the way for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which was signed a year later.

Behind-the-scenes on Tom Cruise’s HALO jump from a C-17 military aircraft at 25,000 feet for the latest Mission: Impossible movie. HALO means high altitude, low open (i.e. the parachute is deployed at below 2,000 feet).

Reminds me of this incredible scene from Moonraker.

Tom Cruise is “our last remaining movie star.”