10 November 2022
Taro Kono’s Double
Android v. fax machine.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Forget Robot Wars. Forget Terminator 1 vs Terminator 2. This week the Japanese government offered us an even more thrilling spectacle of machine-on-machine mayhem. Taro Kono, the minister for digital transformation, has launched a sci-fi battle royal, a fight to the death between rival technologies; he has rung the bell (seconds out!) for the opening round of… the Android v. the Fax Machine.
The android in question is an avatar for none other than Mr Kono himself. It looks like him, it moves like him and it dresses like him. He’s had the robot made and presented to the public in the hope that this impressive example of information technology will encourage his country’s business leaders to embrace IT and digitally transform the Japanese economy, which many of us here in the West might be surprised to learn has been struggling to modernise itself.
Japanese office workers are apparently reluctant to ditch old-fashioned habits. “Digital transformation in Japan has been slow because of extreme risk-aversion and strong resistance to change” said Hiroshi Ono, a professor at Hitotsubashi University’s School of International Corporate Strategy, this week. The government has recently won a tough and long-fought battle to put an end to the use of personal seals (a practice dating back to the Middle Ages), but it’s struggling to do the same for floppy disks and to scrap regulations which stand in the way of paper-free offices or remote working.
Mr Kono has identified the fax machine as a symbol of all that is backward-looking in his country’s working practices. Two years ago, he launched a campaign against this gadget which has been obsolete for decades but is still stubbornly holding its own in offices and households the length and breadth of the land. At that time, over 90% of offices and a third of homes still used them – in spite of the rise of emails and other internet-based messaging and communication systems – and those figures haven’t changed much since then. So now he’s sending his android into the ring to fight for change and modernity, hoping that this exciting example of futuristic IT will enthuse his populace and encourage them to abandon the old, embrace the new and throw their obsolete machines onto the scrap-heap.
Coincidentally, the authorities here in the UK also struck a blow against fax machines this week. Ofcom proposed the scrapping of regulations which oblige telecoms companies to support the use of faxes. Parliament has recently changed legislation so that companies such as BT and KCOM will no longer have to provide fax-enabling services at an affordable price. Such measures should well and truly put the final nails into the fax’s coffin. In 2018, the then health secretary Matt Hancock, on discovering that the NHS was still using more than 8000 fax machines, banned NHS trusts from buying any more, with a view to phasing them out altogether over the following two years. These days they’re widely dismissed as ‘yesterday’s technology’ and have largely disappeared from the workplace. So, here in the UK at least, we’re likely to be spared the sight of robotic doubles of our politicians (surely an alarming rather than an encouraging prospect), as we appear not to need any encouragement to chuck old machines out.
But would we be able to tell the difference between the android and the real politician? Of course we would; after all, robot politicians are unlikely to send indiscreet, bullying and profanity-ridden messages to their colleagues, or embarrass themselves by going on reality tv shows, or crash the economy, or break their own lockdown rules, or lie to parliament. Ok, a robot politician could be hacked by hostile powers. But so what? Liz Truss’s phone was hacked by mysterious agencies, wasn’t it?
So perhaps Mr Kono and the Japanese government are onto something after all. And they’re not alone. Digital avatars played a large part in South Korea’s presidential election earlier this year. Independent candidate Kim Dong-yeon had not one but two avatars – digital animated creations – to help him campaign in more than one place at a time and to ease pressure on his war-chest. (“Adopting an AI spokesman is an attempt to cut down on the cost of campaigning” admitted this former banker and minister of economy and finance, with obvious delight.)
The winning candidate Yoon Suk-yeol also had a personal avatar, but his was in an altogether different league from Kim Dong-yeon’s. It was a life-like, moving, talking image (constructed from many hours of recordings of him speaking and moving) which could converse with real human beings and answer questions from voters. Looking and sounding like Yoon Suk-yeol, it was sent out across the country to canvas for him from screens mounted on motor vehicles. (Reports claim that it differed from Yoon Suk-yeol himself only in that it could be rude and witty and didn’t share its original’s much-satirised habits of excessive head-shaking and standing with his legs far apart.)
Now, if only the candidates in the recent Tory party leadership races had followed suit. They could have created their own android avatars and left them to fight it out among themselves. Literally. Robot Wars with a vengeance. Let the last Terminator standing be appointed prime minister. It would have been far more entertaining than the actual tedious circuses. And it would have pre-empted the question of who exactly should have had the deciding vote, solving that fractious problem once and for all.