Sunday, May 13, 2012

6 May 2011 – Virtual necking, demography, and robots

“I’m afraid the Holodeck will be mankind’s last invention.”

– Scott Adams, The Dilbert Future


Stephen King once said that everyone’s mind is like a sink, and we all have a different filter that strains out the gunk at the end of every day.  One of the unusual things that got caught in my mental gunk-filter this week was an article about how robotics researchers in Japan working at the Kajimoto Laboratory of the University of Electrocommunications are in the final stages of perfecting a device for kissing over the internet. 

Yeah, you heard that right – it’s a machine for recording oro-lingual input, transmitting it digitally, and recreating it at the other end.(Note A)  It’s not such an alien concept, really; after all, a fax machine is just a device that optically scan pieces of paper, recording white pixels as zeroes and dark pixels as ones, transmits the numbers over a phone line, and recreates them as a picture at the other end.  A traditional telephone did the same thing with sound waves absorbed and transformed into electric current by a piezoelectric receiver, and turned back into sound waves by a piezoelectric transmitter at the other end.  Hell, a telegraph machine uses a simple switch to send on-off pulses over a wire, which were then turned by an electromagnet back into clicks.  This dandy new gadget is the direct lineal descendent of a Morse code key.  It just happens to be one that you stick in your mouth.

I don’t imagine I need to describe where, given human inventiveness, this sort of development is likely to lead; suffice it to say that it’s likely to involve the words “hardware interface” and could eventually render “sexting” as anachronistic as hoopskirts.  But thankfully, we’re not there yet, and the proof is in the “hardware interface” that has been developed at Kajimoto.  Take a look at a picture of the device in use.  It might sound hot in theory, but in practice it’s about as erotic as a breathalyser.

“You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate: there is more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the tongues of the French council; and they should sooner persuade  <404 ERROR>

As I see it, this is all part of an interesting and potentially very problematic trend.  In addition to using robots in innumerable applications designed to free humans from dangerous tasks (for example, measuring radiation levels in buildings at the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant), Japan is leading the world right now in the development of anthropomorphic robots.  Japanese robotics engineers are pushing the envelope for all they’re worth, trying to bridge the “uncanny valley” that separates creatures (and features) that humans can identify with from those that we cannot.(Note B)  The more outré examples tend to be the ones that make the news – for example, “female” robots designed to hit the runway as 95-pound fashion models (Note C), or child-sized robots designed to serve as surrogates for childless couples (Note D).  There are of course other examples, but decorum forbids mentioning them here.

Compared to the internet kiss-transmitter, attempts to develop convincing anthropomorphic robots represent the opposing end of the spectrum of seamless human-machine interface engineering.  Developments in this fascinating field are proceeding apace.  According to a recent (and admittedly hilarious) Google search, somewhere between 2034 and 2037 the US government will be fielding “autonomous attack drones” or even an “autonomous robot army”; by 2050, sex with robots will be “possible”; by 2056, robots will be given the same rights as humans; and by 2059, humans will have “domesticated” robots.(Note E)  Leaving aside the wisdom, propriety and morality of giving rights to machines that we have not yet domesticated (let alone dimming the lights, putting on some Barry White, and cracking the Spumante Bambino with something that is physiologically indistinguishable from us and self-aware, but is legally a non-person), clearly the popular zeitgeist expects roboticists to bridge the “uncanny valley” at some point in the near future.  No pun intended.

Okay, so why should we care?  Well, not to come off like a waxen-haired televangelist, but there’s something a little pathologically misanthropic in seeking interpersonal interactions with a machine instead of with a real person.  The idea that a child-shaped robot is a desirable sop to the unsatisfied maternal/paternal instincts of humans who didn’t have children of their own is a little chilling.  And not to wax too apocalyptic, but there’s something else that Japan is known for that bears an interesting correlation to their fascination with the non-human.  It’s that fact that Japan has by far the lowest total fertility rate of any G8 country.  In fact, Japan’s TFR of 1.21 children per woman (estimated for 2011) stands at 215th out of 220 states and regions.  Replacement rate to maintain zero population growth is roughly 2.1 children per women.  With a TFR of 1.21, Japan’s population is declining faster than just about any population in the civilized world.(Note F)

 I’m not the first to mention this; far from it.  Pundit and self-described “demographics bore” Mark Steyn noted it years ago in America Alone, the book that got him hauled before three separate “Human Rights” commissions and tribunals for alleged “Islamophobia”.  One of the phenomena he noted was that national fertility rate statistics tend to be deceptive; while the UK, for example, boasts a TFR of 1.66, that is an average figure comprising very low fertility rates for native Britons, and much higher fertility rates for immigrant communities.  The disparity in fertility rates, Steyn argues, is changing the ethnic, religious and socio-cultural makeup of Western nations that have attempted to mitigate their own declining birthrates through expansive and liberal immigration policies.  Japan, which does not have an “expansive and liberal” immigration policy, more accurately reflects the rapidly declining birthrates common among industrialized Western nations.  It is worth noting that Japan’s neighbours on the low end of the TFR scale include nearly all European nations, eastern and western alike; while the top end of the scale includes the African, Middle-Eastern and South Asian states that are the points of origin of many of the larger and growing immigrant communities in the West.

To the extent that changing demographics are a matter of strategic concern for Western countries, one of the larger issues meriting investigation must be the fact that a combination of declining birthrates in industrialized nations and much larger birthrates among immigrant communities is rapidly transforming the sociocultural makeup of the West.  In the context of the ongoing “war on terror”, the fact that states of concern, and the slow-to-integrate immigrant communities that come from those states, have a much higher TFR than the countries attempting to stem the tide of Islamism and the jihadism that comes with it, is surely a matter of strategic interest.  Canadians – or at least those with a passing knowledge of our own history – should be more sensitive to this phenomenon than most; after all, it wasn’t all that long ago that Quebec nationalists were talking about “la vengeance des berceuses.”  That did not come to pass, of course; Quebec society, in the violence of reaction against the stultifying grip of the Church, embraced the libertine excesses of the 1960s with far greater enthusiasm than did the rest of Canada, and the impact on Quebec’s TFR was noteworthy. 

Today Quebec’s TFR (1.74) is slightly above the Canadian average of 1.68.  Some have suggested that this is due to the high TFR of large immigrant communities.  But if we look at the data, there does not seem to be any obvious correlation between the TFR of a province, and the proportion of that province’s population listing a place other than Canada as their place of birth.

This chart (prepared with 2006 census data from StatsCan) compares total fertility rates (TFR) per province against the proportion of each province’s population listing a place other than Canada as their place of birth.  There are some preliminary conclusions that may be drawn; first, that the maritime provinces are not popular as a place of settlement for new immigrants to Canada, while BC and Ontario definitely are; and second, that if we eliminate the maritime provinces as a clustered anomaly, there appears to be a very loose, inverse, correlation between the proportion of a province’s population not born in Canada, and the total fertility rate of that province.  This would appear to fly in the face of the theories posited by inter alia Steyn.

But perhaps it’s only certain segments of the immigrant community that affect birthrates?  The next chart compares provincial TFRs against the proportion of provincial populations contributed by immigrants from high-TFR regions, i.e., Africa, West Asia and the Middle East, and South Asia (again, using 2006 census data):

Again, the correlation appears to run counter to the arguments posed by Steyn et al.  If we once again deduct the Maritimes, where proportional representation by immigrants is very small (perhaps too small to enable us to draw robust conclusions), then what this chart appears to show is in fact an inverse correlation between provincial TFR and the proportion of the provincial population contributed by immigrants from high-TFR regions.  Ontario and BC, after all, have the two highest provincial representations by immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, and two of the lowest fertility rates in the country; while Saskatchewan and Manitoba, with low representation from these regions, have TFRs above the Canadian average.  It is, of course, also likely that the overall low representation of immigrants from these regions on a national level (4.7%) is too low to have a significant impact on aggregate provincial TFRs.  It is equally possible that these data, which are 5 years old, are no longer representative (but they do post-date Steyn’s book).  The census currently under way will provide new numbers that will enable us not only to conduct more accurate investigations into demographic change in Canada, but also to look at how change itself is changing over time.

If there were an observable correlation between immigrant representation and TFR, then in theory the quickest way to neutralize the transformative effect of differential birthrates between native and immigrant populations in Western states would be to effect the integration of new immigrants as rapidly as possible.  This may be what the charts are showing. It has also been posited that declining birthrates throughout the Western world are at least in part a consequence of the welfare state, which provides means of support for aging citizens other than the traditional primate method of guaranteeing familial stability by having children.  The problem, of course, is that support programs are paid for by taxpayers, and the more citizens who avail themselves of such support in lieu of procreating, the fewer citizens there will be in the next generation to provide the revenue to pay for the continuation of the programs.  This is the heart of the “unfunded entitlements” dilemma overshadowing the present US problems with long-term deficits (and also the heart of the demographic pothole that China is facing as a result of its one-child policy).  It is also the basis of the principle that because voting public largesse, availing one’s-self of it, and declining to procreate are all individual choices, the resultant inevitable societal decline – as Japan’s citizens, with their catastrophic TFR and, as a consequence thereof, equally catastrophic public debt problem are discovering – is also by definition a choice.

Politicians in Washington have been decrying the accumulation of debt that will have to be paid “by our children and grandchildren.”  They should consider themselves lucky; with a TFR of 2.05, Americans, their horrific spending habits and massive debt notwithstanding, are at least more likely to be able to dig themselves out of their hole than anyone else in the Western world, because unlike the rest of the West, they’re at least still having children to leave their debt to.  The situation is far more precarious in countries that are racking up enormous, historically unprecedented levels of public debt, but whose populations, instead of having children, are designing anthropomorphic child- and spousal-replacement droids and trying to figure out how to swap spit over the internet.

I guess if there’s a moral to the story, it might be one that was mooted on Futurama a few years back:

 Anthropomorphically yours,



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