Japan has the highest population of older people in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Over a quarter of Japan’s population is over 65 years of age yet the working age population shrinks by one percent each year. By 2025, Japan will be forced to prepare for a predicted shortfall of 370,000 caregivers. This situation raises a major question. How do we find the manpower to care for such a huge and valuable part of Japan’s population? Luckily, Japan is also a leader in robotic technology. If humans can’t do it, technology finds a way. Robots are already taking care of Japan’s ageing population. The care robots or “carerobo” population is set to grow both in size and in functionality.
Using AI and robotics, these robots are equipped to deal with a few core human care functions. Chapit, a mouse-like robot, sits at their bedside and engages them in light conversation. Robear can lift a person off their bed and into a wheelchair. Pet-like robots like Sony’s Aibo’s robo-dog exist as elderly companions. Palro, the most human-looking robot, leads an exercise classes in nursing homes. Palro also engages old age home residents in other fun activities, like quizzes.
Mobility assistance is a growing field in care robotics. There are electric-powered mobility assistance robots which assist the elderly while walking around streets. It contains sensors to detect when the user is going uphill and systematically adds some boost. On the downhill ride, breaks are applied. This technology is set to revolutionise the traditional mobility scooter.
Honda Motor Co, a leading automobile company launched their “walking legs” programme in 2013- launching various walking assistance devices.
Last year Toyota, the world’s second largest car manufacturer, launched their walk-assist programme. It works very much like a “car-rental” system and aims to help patients who have suffered from strokes and other conditions learn to walk again.
Toshiyuki Isobe, Chief Officer of Toyota’s Frontier Research Centre, told Reuters:
“If there’s a way that we can enable more elderly people to stay mobile after they can no longer drive, we have to look beyond just cars and evolve into a maker of robots.”
In the future, developers aim to build a robot that can determine when a patient needs to go to the bathroom and assist them with these tasks.
The Robot Innovation Research at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology aims to decrease the burden on nursing staff and boost the autonomy of people still living at home. They have worked on a government-backed project to help 98 manufacturers test nursing-care robotic devices over the past five years. 15 devices have been developed into commercial products.
Is There a Market for Robot Care?
Dr Hirohisa Hirukawa, Director of Robot Innovation Research at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology programme believes that the high cost, combined with traditional attitudes to human-only care stands the way of the expansion of care robots. Despite government encouraging the elderly to make use of the robots, few have accepted the offer.
Hirukwa explained to the Guardian: “On the side of those who receive care, of course initially there will be psychological resistance.”
High cost is also a concern. The main adopters are subsidised nursing homes. Few individuals can afford their own robot. The care robot industry lags behind the more widespread commercial use of industrial and service robots.
Nursing homes, however, are making good use of this growing technology. Approximately 5000 nursing-care institutions are testing robots. The Japanese government expects this industry to grow- more than tripling in income before 2020 to a ¥54.3 billion industry.
The government is driving the growth of this programme. By 2020, the government’s robot strategy predicts approximately four out of five care recipients should receive services from care robots.