TOKYO: In the main recreational area of Shin Tomi Rest Home in Tokyo, a crowd of the home’s elderly residents have gathered to sing and dance and get their daily dose of exercise.
A childish voice sings while waving her hands in the air and having the audience follow every movement.
Holding court is not a care worker but Pepper the robot.
“Pepper is cute so I’m enjoying talking to her. I never imagined having a conversation with a robot,” said Masuzaki, an 84-year-old resident at the home.
Standing at around 4ft (about 1.2m) tall and equipped with hundreds of sensors, Pepper can read emotions, genders and estimate the age of a person. As well as being an entertainment provider, she is also able to work as a medical assistant, collecting and explaining medical reports to patients.
She was developed by Softbank Robotics, and is touted as the first “emotional” robot.
Another robotic helper is Palro a communications robot made by Fujisoft Inc. This mini robot is able to have simple conversations with the elderly to keep them company.
Palro was introduced in 2012 and now there are more than 1,000 in commercial use. Away from elderly homes, Palro is also being used to provide physical therapy and be an at-home concierge.
“Carebots like Palro are able to help the care staff at elderly homes by taking away a lot of the responsibilities,” says Tomiko Kuge, head of public information for Palro. “Palro is especially beneficial for those suffering from dementia, as people who are able to have daily conversations with her are able to enjoy a more stable mind and you can see an improvement of cognitive functions.”
“In the future we hope to raise the artificial intelligence to be able to be a natural conversationalist and even be able to converse in different languages,” Kuge added.
There’s also Paro the therapeutic robot. Built in the form of a baby seal, it can respond to temperature, touch, light and sounds. It is meant to replace a cat or dog without the allergies and requirements needed to clean it and aims to relieve stress and help those with mental issues such as dementia feel more socially engaged.
JAPAN’S AGEING SOCIETY
These robots are an innovative response to help Japan deal with a growing ageing population and lack of health care workers. Over 26 per cent of the population in Japan is 65 years or older, making it the biggest ageing population in the world.
On top of this, by 2025, Japan will also face a shortage of about 380,000 caregivers.
In response, Japan has turned to carebots and is now one of the leaders in this market. According to Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the market is expected to increase 25 times to US$3.7 billion by 2035 and is currently being used in more than 600 care homes across Japan.
Sales of robots designed specifically to assist elderly people are expected to reach 12,400 units between 2015 and 2018, with that number expected to "increase substantially" over the next 20 years, according to a Merrill Lynch report.
The government is also spurring the trend, calling for the development of robotics-based nursing-care equipment as part of its Japan Revitalization Strategy.
In order to encourage their use, the Japanese government began providing subsidies for nursing homes to adopt robotics beginning in 2013 to help alleviate the shortage. The Shin Tomi nursing home in Tokyo was one facility that took advantage of the subsidies.
“The advantages of care robots are that they can carry heavy objects, work long hours and do routine work,” said Kimiya Ishikawa, President and chief director of Silverwing Social Welfare Corporation, which runs Shin Tomi. “But there are still some problems.
“Robots don’t know how to act or react in dangerous or risky situations. They are just there to provide support and back up.”
A ROBOTIC HELPING HAND
As well as providing conversation and interaction, robotics are also being used to make lives easier for the employees. Power assisting suits provide a metal backbone to help people carry heavy weights while integrated care beds turn into wheelchairs, eliminating the burden of lifting individuals from one place to another.
RT Works of Osaka has developed the Encore Smart, an assisted walker that can take the elderly across rugged terrain, while Cyberdyne has started to develop Hybrid Assistive Limbs which work as an exoskeleton that stabilise and increase the strength of the wearer by reacting to electrical impulses in the skin without the need for actual movement.
Carebots for all needs are being developed from movement support, excretion support, bathing support and robots that simply monitor.
In a bid to mainstream these carebots, a formal standard has been set for their use ensuring protection against litigation in the event of an accident occurring in close human-robot interactions.
Gurvinder Virk, a professor of robotics who helped lead the creation of the ISO standard, said it helps create a safety net for when robots are commercialised.
“Safety of the new robots is mandatory,” he said. “Robots are traditionally designed to be kept apart from humans but personal care robots allow close human-robot interaction as well as human-robot contact.”
There are three categories that fall under the ISO standard: Physical assistant robots, mobile servant robots and person carrier robots.
The Panasonic Resyone, a robotic device that transforms from a bed to an electric wheelchair, eliminating the need for multiple caregivers was the first robot to officially meet the standard for service robots.
Ishikawa sees a lot of potential in the future use of carebots. He said they can offer not just assistance but can also monitor for any potential degradation and predict illnesses.
“In the future they are looking towards being able to detect illnesses before they happen, by compiling the medical data of the person and monitoring any changes in the person,” said Ishikawa.
“We’re also looking to introduce it into homes so they can watch and alert people if the elderly person is in trouble,” he added. “People dying alone in their homes is a big problem in Japan.”
The full integration of robots into the elderly care system doesn’t come cheap. Both Palro and Paro set buyers back US$6,000 each and other equipment can be just as expensive.
However, as Japan increasingly looks towards robotics to solve its ageing population issue and robots become more mainstream, it might just be a matter of time before they are a regular feature in elderly homes and houses across the country.
*This article was written with the help of the Jefferson Fellowship supported by the Freeman Foundation.