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Japan turns to robots as population declines

Fifty years ago, scientists predicted that robots would carry out today's tiresome tasks. Those predictions may have been wide off the mark, but with an ageing population Japan is pushing ahead with robotic assistance.

In a new study, Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare predicted that the nation's nursing care sector would require 2.4 million workers to meet the needs of the rapidly ageing society. In 2012, the number of people employed in that sector came to a mere 1.49 million people.

Nursing care is a tough area for many people to work in; the hours are long and irregular, it is not well paid and the work is physically demanding - so much so that the turnover among workers is far higher than elsewhere because care givers themselves experience higher-than-average physical problems brought on by having to lift and move elderly and ill people.

On top of that, Japan's labor force is shrinking as fewer babies are born while more and more people are living longer and requiring assistance.

To counteract the looming crisis, the health ministry has announced a scheme to develop a new generation of robots designed to provide both assistance and companionship to the aged and the infirm.

A Japanese robot (Photo: DW)

'Japanese people get used to new technology very quickly'

Operating in care homes

In November, engineers and experts from 15 companies began conducting demonstration trials in 10 nursing care homes around the country in an attempt to help the makers perfect their technology and to encourage the operators of the homes to invest in the robots. A third aim is for residents to become accustomed to being cared for by androids.

"It is clear we are going to have a shortage of labor in the years ahead and this is a clever answer to that problem at a time when Japan is also having economic problems," Makoto Watanabe, a lecturer in communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, told DW.

"But it should not really come as that much as a surprise that robots are now beginning to appear in the nursing care sector, as Japanese car makers were among the first in the world to employ robots and complete automation in their factories back in the 1970s," he added.

"The rest of the world went on to benefit from Japan's example and it has solved the problem of the global shortage of skilled labor," Watanabe said. "Now Japan is in the forefront of robots in this sector as well, which will benefit elderly people here and around the world, as well as being a boost to Japanese companies in this sector."

A number of androids have already been developed, with the elderly very much the target consumer.

Communication android

The HOSPI-Rimo, for example, is in development and designed to act as an intermediary to improve communication between patients who are bed-ridden or have limited mobility and other people, such as a doctor in another room or even in another city. The android - complete with happy face on its screen - is equipped with autonomous mobility technology and high-definition visual communications facilities.

Panasonic Corp. has also developed an android that washes a person's hair. The Head-care Robot utilizes the company's robotic hand technology, with 24 fingers able to shampoo and rinse with the same dexterity as those of a human. Before it gets to the shampooing stage, however, the robot's two limbs scan the patient's head in three dimensions, measuring and recording the exact shape of the head in order to be able to apply just the correct amount of pressure.

Bildergalerie Fahrräder in China

Robots are also popular in other East Asian countries like China

Japanese scientists have also developed a robotic "suit" that gives even the most infirm person additional strength. The robot is worn as an external skeleton and is designed to assist Japan's rapidly ageing farmers, but it is equally applicable to elderly people and will assist them in walking.

The suit is fitted with motors at the key joints - the lower back, knees, elbows and shoulders - that work in tandem with the wearer and provide him with additional strength.

The robotic suit weighs 25 kg, but the developers are aiming to reduce that by half and have it on the market within two years. Early versions are likely to cost as much as Y1 million (€7,151), but mass production will eventually reduce that to around Y300, 000 (€2,145) per unit.

Robot on space station

But robots are not limited to the healthcare sector, with a 13-inch humanoid robot presently aboard the International Space Station to keep Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata company and robotic devices crawling through the highly radioactive rubble of the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, in north-east Japan, to send images back to their operators.

In October, the Japanese playwright Oriza Hirata staged a performance of Anton Chekhov's classic play "Three Sisters" in Moscow with a humanoid robot taking one of the roles.

Asimo - Honda Motor Co.'s revamped human-shaped robot Asimo uses a Japanese sign language during a news conference at the Japanese automaker's research facility in Wako, near Tokyo, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011 (Photo: Itsuo Inouye/AP/dapd)

'It all sounds a bit sad and lonely,' says anthropologist Tom Gill

Only this week, NEC Corp announced that it will launch a home-use robot in January that will be equipped with a camera, microphone and sensor to enable it to communicate with people.

"I think Japanese people get used to new technology very quickly and it does not worry them to have robots around - even people in their 60s or 70s," said Watanabe.

"As Japanese society is changing - people are getting older and more of us are living alone - I think more and more robots will be welcomed into people's homes to take care of us and simply to be our companions," he added.

Tom Gill, a professor of anthropology at Tokyo's Meiji Gakuin University, is less comforted by the thought that we will be cared for in the future by devices rather than people.

"It all sounds a bit sad and lonely to me," he said. "It is sad that there are not enough humans around to help us and I understand why it might be beneficial to have robots to do this work for us, but it still sounds a bit creepy."