Japan turns to AI to boost birth rate slump

AI do: Weddings conducted by robots have been available to Japanese couples since 2010. © Reuters

Should we replace romance with relationships arranged by AI? The Japanese government sees artificial intelligence as the answer to falling birth rates – and other countries may copy it.

Goro Nakagawa has just turned 25. His life is going well: he has a good job as an architect, and a cool flat in Osaka. But he wants something more: a wife and family. So he activates his phone’s Where’s-My-Mate? app, and seconds later an alluring face appears. The interests on the accompanying profile are identical to his. Brilliant! This is the person he will spend the rest of his life with.

If a new initiative launched by the Japanese government succeeds, this scenario could be an everyday reality a few years from now. Local authorities are being allocated 2bn yen (£14m) for artificial-intelligence projects that will matchmake single people.

The reason is simple: Japan’s birth rate has declined alarmingly. Last year fewer than 865,000 babies were born – a record low for the country, whose population is currently around 126 million.

The fertility rate – meaning the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime – was 1.36: one of the lowest in the world, and far from the 2:1 experts say is needed to maintain a population. If this pattern continues, Japan could have fewer than 53 million people by the end of the century.

As a result of the falling birth rate, the average age in Japan is getting higher, meaning that there are more retired people for the welfare state to look after. But because the workforce is shrinking, it is harder for the government to collect the taxes it needs to pay for that.

About half of Japan’s local authorities already have matchmaking services, and some use AI to analyse the personal details that the applicants give. But at the moment these systems are quite crude: some only make recommendations if, say, age and income tally exactly. The new funding means that they can be developed to include criteria such as shared values and hobbies.

Of course, there are already a plethora of private dating services and apps, many of which use sophisticated AI technology. Two years ago Facebook launched Facebook Dating, which is currently available on its app in 20 countries. The company claims to have made over 1.5 billion matches.

Whether many of its matches will lead to couples having children is another question. Mark Zuckerberg promised at the launch that the feature was “about building real long-term relationships, not just hook-ups” – and given the amount of information Facebook collects about its users, it may achieve that. But pairing people with a view to creating a family is a lot harder than putting them together for a fun date, which is difficult enough.

Nevertheless, says the historian Yuval Noah Harari, AI matchmaking could be the norm by 2050. Dating, he argues, will be “so passé. You just wait for an algorithm to find (or create) the perfect match for you.” The algorithms, he adds, will “know you better than you know yourself”.

Should we replace romance with relationships arranged by AI?

Data daters

Some say, yes: the Japanese government is setting an example which other countries should follow. A huge number of couples already meet online, and the success rate will become even higher as the already sophisticated technology is developed further. Romance is a messy, often painful business, and we would all be much happier if we could do without it.

Others say romance may be messy, but it is one of life’s great experiences, and one of the things that make us human. There is more to relationships than tick-box compatibility: two of Shakespeare’s greatest lovers, Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, start out quarrelling non-stop. Real depth of love comes from learning about each other and going through difficult times together.

You Decide

  1. Is artificial intelligence a boon or a threat to humanity?
  2. Is it right for governments to involve themselves in family life?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you are creating a matchmaking app. Make a list of the ten most important things that the people it will pair up must have in common.
  2. Write a comedy sketch about two people matched by artificial intelligence meeting for their first date.

Some People Say...

“It is better to love wisely, no doubt: but to love foolishly is better than not to be able to love at all.”

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811 - 1863), English novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that most countries are faced with falling fertility rates. There are 23 whose populations are expected to halve by 2100, including Spain, Portugal, Italy, Thailand and South Korea, while China’s is predicted to drop from 1.4 billion to 732 million. An exception is Nigeria, where a rise from 208 million to 791 million is forecast. One expert predicts that, far from discouraging immigrants, countries will end up competing for them.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether declining populations are a bad thing. The reason for falling fertility rates is generally applauded: more women are working and being educated, and – with greater access to contraception – are choosing to have fewer children. Some environmentalists argue that not having children is the best thing you can do for the planet. But economists worry about how societies will function with fewer and fewer young people looking after more and more old people.

Word Watch

Osaka
The second largest city in Japan after Tokyo, and one of the largest in the world, with a current population of over 20 million.
Yen
The official currency of Japan. Up until 1871, different parts of the country issued their own money.
Fertility rate
In 1950, the global average was 4.7. It is now 2.4, and expected to fall to 1.7 by 2100.
2:1
Two parents having two children is not enough to maintain the population because not all children survive to adulthood.
Plethora
Originally meaning too much of something, it has also come to mean just a large amount. It comes from a Greek word meaning “fullness”.
Mark Zuckerberg
The head of Facebook, he met his wife Priscilla at university. They have 2.0 children.
Yuval Noah Harari
An Israeli academic who is best known for his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which has sold over 1 million copies.
Passé
A French word meaning out of date or unfashionable.

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