For Sophisticated Tasks, Robots Cost Much More Than Humans

(p. A6) . . . , however hospitable Japanese businesses have been to robots, they have learned that robots able to perform somewhat sophisticated tasks cost much more than human workers.

So at the factory in Asahikawa, where about 60 percent of the work is automated, many tasks still require the human touch. Workers peel pumpkins, for example, because some skin enhances the flavor of stew. A robot can’t determine just how much skin to shuck off.

Other efforts to use robots or automation have hit snags, in programs ranging from self-driving buses to package-delivering drones or robots that comfort nursing home residents.

A hotel staffed by androids in southern Japan ended up laying off some of its robots after customers complained that they were not as good at hospitality as people.

During a trial of self-driving buses in Oita City, also in southern Japan, one bus crashed into a curb, and officials realized that autonomous vehicles were not quite ready to cope with situations like traffic jams, jaywalkers or cars running red lights.

For the full story, see:

Motoko Rich. “Japan Loves Robots, but Not for Preparing Fries or Driving Buses.” The New York Times (Wednesday, January 1, 2020): A6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Jan. 4, 2019, and has the title “Japan Loves Robots, but Getting Them to Do Human Work Isn’t Easy.”)

Japan Records Fewest Births Since 1874

(p. A6) Japan has 512,000 fewer people this year than last, according to an estimate released on Tuesday by the country’s welfare ministry. That’s a drop of more than the entire population of the city of Atlanta.

The numbers are the latest sign of Japan’s increasing demographic challenges.

Births in the country — which are expected to drop below 900,000 this year — are at their lowest figure since 1874, when the population was about 70 percent smaller than its current 124 million.

The total number of deaths, on the other hand, is increasing. This year, the figure is expected to reach almost 1.4 million, the highest level since the end of World War II, a rise driven by the country’s increasingly elderly population.

For the full story, see:

Ben Dooley. “Japan Shrank by 500,000 People in 2019, as Births Hit Lowest Point Since 1874.” The New York Times (Wednesday, December 25, 2019): A6.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 24, 2019, and has the title “Japan Shrinks by 500,000 People as Births Fall to Lowest Number Since 1874.”)

High-Tech Toilets Could Reduce Feces in Swimming Pools

If the cringeworthy facts reported below were more widely known, demand would greatly increase for the high-tech toilets common in Japan, that shoot water sprays at human rear ends, to quickly, comfortably, and completely remove fecal residue. Why has no one grasped this entrepreneurial opportunity?

(p. A2) Mrs. [Lindsey] Blackstock and several colleagues tested 31 swimming pools and hot tubs in hotels and recreational facilities in Canada for the presence of acesulfame potassium, an artificial sweetener that is largely undigested and almost entirely excreted in urine.
. . .
Using that information, they deduced that a 110,000-gallon pool they studied contained an estimated eight gallons of urine, while a 220,000-gallon pool contained an estimated 20 gallons. The concentrations represented about 0.01% of the total water volume.
“If your eyes are turning red when you’re swimming, or if you’re coughing or have a runny nose, it’s likely there is at least some urine in the pool,” said Michele Hlavsa, chief of the Healthy Swimming Program for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Urine isn’t a primary source of germs in pools or hot tubs, but feces that clings to the body is. At any time, Dr. Hlavsa said, adults have about 0.14 grams of poop on their bottoms and children have as much as 10 grams.
“When you’re talking about bigger water parks with 1,000 children in a given day, you’re now talking about 10 kilograms or 22 pounds of poop,” she said.
Feces can contain bacteria, viruses and parasites such as E. coli, norovirus and giardia that can lead to outbreaks of diarrhea, vomiting and other illnesses.

For the full commentary, see:
Jo Craven McGinty. “THE NUMBERS; A Sanitary Pool Requires Proper Behavior.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 21, 2017): A2.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed name, added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 21, 2017, and has the title “THE NUMBERS; Is That Pool Really Sanitary? New Chemical Approach Has Answers.”)

Blackstock’s research, described above, was published in:
Jmaiff Blackstock, Lindsay K., Wei Wang, Sai Vemula, Benjamin T. Jaeger, and Xing-Fang Li. “Sweetened Swimming Pools and Hot Tubs.” Environmental Science & Technology Letters 4, no. 4 (April 2017): 149-53.

Soichiro Honda Rushed Prototype Car “in Defiance of a Planned Japanese Law”

(p. A10) For many Japanese, Honda reflected the originality and self-confidence that turned the country into an industrial powerhouse after World War II.
. . .
The company was founded in 1946 by Soichiro Honda, a tinkerer who loved to battle the giants with his own innovations. He and a dozen workers took engines intended for small electric generators and attached them to bicycles, the first Honda product. Within 15 years, a Honda motorcycle was beating European rivals at the Isle of Man motorcycle race.
Around that time, Mr. Honda rushed out a prototype automobile despite having almost no experience in building them, in defiance of a planned Japanese law that would have restricted entry in the market.

For the full story, see:
Sean McLain. “Tech Costs Force Honda To Let Go of Engineering Legacy.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Aug. 6, 2018): A1 & A10.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 5, 2018, and has the title “Honda Took Pride in Doing Everything Itself. The Cost of Technology Made That Impossible.”)

Discovery of Several Centuries Worth of Rare-Earth Metals

(p. A13) TOKYO–Japan has hundreds of years’ worth of rare-earth metal deposits in its waters, according to new research that reflects Tokyo’s concern about China’s hegemony over minerals used in batteries and electric vehicles.
The deposits were found in the Pacific Ocean seabed near remote Minamitori Island, about 1,150 miles southeast of Tokyo. Extracting them would likely be costly, but resource-poor Japan is pushing ahead with research in hopes of getting more control over next-generation technologies and weapon systems.
A roughly 965-square-mile seabed near the island contains more than 16 million tons of rare-earth oxides, estimated to hold 780 years’ worth of the global supply of yttrium, 620 years’ worth of europium, 420 years’ worth of terbium and 730 years’ worth of dysprosium, according to a study published this week in Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports.
. . .
In 2010, China pushed rare-earth prices up as much as 10 times by cutting its export quota on 17 elements by 40% from the previous year. It said it wanted to clean up a polluting industry, but the move left Japan seeking more independence from prices dictated by its neighbor. Japanese manufacturers have since lowered the amount of rare-earth metals in batteries and motors.

For the full story, see:
Mayumi Negishi. “In Rare-Earth Find, Hope of an Edge Against China.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, April 12, 2018): A13.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 11, 2018, and has the title “Japan Hopes Rare-Earth Find Will Give It an Edge Against China.”)

The study mentioned above, is:
Takaya, Yutaro, Kazutaka Yasukawa, Takehiro Kawasaki, Koichiro Fujinaga, Junichiro Ohta, Yoichi Usui, Kentaro Nakamura, Jun-Ichi Kimura, Qing Chang, Morihisa Hamada, Gjergj Dodbiba, Tatsuo Nozaki, Koichi Iijima, Tomohiro Morisawa, Takuma Kuwahara, Yasuyuki Ishida, Takao Ichimura, Masaki Kitazume, Toyohisa Fujita, and Yasuhiro Kato. “The Tremendous Potential of Deep-Sea Mud as a Source of Rare-Earth Elements.” Scientific Reports 8, no. 1 (April 10, 2018): 1-8.

Pursuit of Slow Hunch Pays Off with Flu Drug

(p. B3) As Americans suffer through the worst influenza outbreak in almost a decade, a Japanese drugmaker says it has developed a pill that can kill the virus within a day.
. . .
“The data that we’ve seen looks very promising,” said Martin Howell Friede, who leads the World Health Organization’s advisory on vaccines, including for influenza. “This could be a breakthrough in the way that we treat influenza.”
. . .
Shionogi scientists began researching a novel flu drug more than a decade ago, shelving almost 2,500 compounds in the process. Then, the 140-year-old Osaka company, which has created blockbuster drugs used to treat HIV and high cholesterol, had a breakthrough.
Shionogi scientists knew from their research that an anti-HIV drug the company had developed with a joint venture of Pfizer Inc. and GlaxoSmithKline Co. worked by blocking a metallic enzyme that HIV uses as a weapon to hijack human cells. They found the flu virus was also exploiting a metallic enzyme.
“So we said, ‘why don’t we build on our HIV knowledge to find a way to treat the flu?’ And we did,” said Takeki Uehara, who led the compound’s development.

For the full story, see:
Preetika Rana. “Drugmaker: Pill Kills Flu in a Day.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Feb. 12, 2018): B3.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article has the date Feb. 10, 2018, and has the title “Experimental Drug Promises to Kill the Flu Virus in a Day.”)

Space Trash Start-Up Aims to Be Quicker than Government

(p. D1) Mr. Okada is an entrepreneur with a vision of creating the first trash collection company dedicated to cleaning up some of humanity’s hardest-to-reach rubbish: the spent rocket stages, inert satellites and other debris that have been collecting above Earth since Sputnik ushered in the space age. He launched Astroscale three years ago in the belief that national space agencies were dragging their feet in facing the problem, which could be tackled more quickly by a small private company motivated by profit.
“Let’s face it, waste management isn’t sexy enough for a space agency to convince taxpayers to allocate money,” said Mr. Okada, 43, who put Astroscale’s headquarters in start-up-friendly Singapore but is building its spacecraft in his native Japan, where he found more engineers. “My breakthrough is figuring out how to make this into a business.”
. . .
(p. D3) “The projects all smelled like government, not crisp or quick,” he said of conferences he attended to learn about other efforts. “I came from the start-up world where we think in days or weeks, not years.”
. . .
He also said that Astroscale would start by contracting with companies that will operate big satellite networks to remove their own malfunctioning satellites. He said that if a company has a thousand satellites, several are bound to fail. Astroscale will remove these, allowing the company to fill the gap in its network by replacing the failed unit with a functioning satellite.
“Our first targets won’t be random debris, but our clients’ own satellites,” he said. “We can build up to removing debris as we perfect our technology.”

For the full story, see:

MARTIN FACKLER. “Building a Garbage Truck for Space.” The New York Times (Tues., Nov. 29, 2016): D1 & D3.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 28, 2016, and has the title “Space’s Trash Collector? A Japanese Entrepreneur Wants the Job.”)