Robots have the run of Tokyo’s Shintomi nursing home, which uses 20 different models to care for its residents.
Allowing them to help care for the elderly — a job typically seen as requiring a human touch — may be a jarring idea in the West. But many Japanese see robots positively, largely because they are depicted in popular media as friendly and helpful.
“These robots are wonderful,” said 84-year-old Kazuko Yamada after the exercise session with SoftBank Robotics Corp.’s Pepper, which can carry on scripted dialogues. “More people live alone these days, and a robot can be a conversation partner for them. It will make life more fun.”
But plenty of obstacles may hinder a rapid proliferation of elder care robots: high costs, safety issues and doubts about how useful — and user-friendly — they will be.
The government, which hopes Shintomi can serve as a model in harnessing the country’s robotics expertise to cope with a graying population, has been funding the development of elder care robots to help fill a projected shortfall of 380,000 specialized workers by 2025. Despite steps to allow foreign workers in for elder care, obstacles to employment in the sector, including exams in Japanese, remain. As of the end of 2017, only 18 foreigners held nursing care visas, a new category created in 2016.
But authorities and companies here are also eyeing a larger prize: a potentially lucrative export industry supplying robots to places such as Germany, China and Italy, which face similar demographic challenges now or in the near future.
“It’s an opportunity for us,” said Atsushi Yasuda, director of the robotic policy office at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). “Other countries will follow the same trend.”
More than 100 foreign groups have visited Shintomi in the past year. A few products are trickling out as exports: Panasonic Corp. has started shipping its robotic bed, which transforms into a wheelchair, to Taiwan. Paro is used as a “therapy animal” in about 400 Danish senior homes.
The global market for nursing care and disabled aid robots, made up of mostly Japanese manufacturers, is still tiny: just $19.2 million (¥2 billion) in 2016, according to the International Federation of Robotics. But METI estimates the domestic industry alone will grow to ¥400 billion ($3.8 billion) by 2035, when a third of Japan’s population will be 65 or older.
“It’s potentially a huge market,” said George Leeson, director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. “Everyone is waking up to their aging populations. Clearly robotics is part of that package to address those needs.”
To nurture the industry, the government is using a two-pronged approach. METI is promoting development, providing ¥4.7 billion in subsidies since 2015. The labor ministry is spearheading the spread of robots, and spent ¥5.2 billion to introduce them into 5,000 facilities nationwide in the year that ended last March. There are no government data about how many care facilities use robots.
Government officials stress that robots will not replace human caregivers.
“They can assist with power, mobility and monitoring. They can’t replace humans, but they can save time and labor,” Yasuda said. “If workers have more time, they can do other tasks.”
That’s a robot?
Most of the devices look nothing like the popular images of a robot. By the government’s definition, each has three components — sensors, a processor, and a motor or apparatus.
Panasonic used government aid to develop Resyone, a bed that splits in two, with one half transforming into a wheelchair.
Cyberdyne Inc.’s HAL — short for Hybrid Assistive Limb — lumbar type is a powered back support that helps caregivers lift people. Those needing walking rehabilitation can grab hold of Tree, made by unlisted Reif Co., which crawls along the ground, showing where to place the next step and offering balance support. SoftBank’s Pepper is used in about 500 elder care homes for games, exercise routines and rudimentary conversations. But some workers find Pepper difficult to set up, said Shohei Fujiwara, a manager at SoftBank Robotics. They’d like Pepper to respond to voice commands and move around independently — functions that SoftBank hopes to introduce this year, he said.
A costly solution
Cute, furry and responsive, Paro reacts to touch, speech and light by moving its head, blinking its eyes and playing recordings of Canadian harp seal cries.
“When I first petted it, it moved in such a cute way. It really seemed like it was alive,” giggled 79-year-old Saki Sakamoto, a Shintomi resident. “Once I touched it, I couldn’t let go.”
Paro took more than 10 years to develop and the project received about $20 million in government support, said its inventor, Takanori Shibata, chief research scientist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. About 5,000 are in use globally, including 3,000 in Japan.
But Paro, like most robots, is expensive: ¥400,000 in Japan and about €5,000 in Europe. Panasonic’s Resyone bed costs ¥900,000 and Cyberdyne’s HAL lumbar exoskeleton costs ¥100,000 a month to rent. Most facilities using them, including Shintomi, have relied on local and central government subsidies to help cover the costs. Individuals can also use nursing care insurance to help cover approved products, but those numbers are tiny. And so far, the robots have not reduced Shintomi’s personnel costs or working hours.
“We haven’t gotten that far yet,” said Kimiya Ishikawa, president and CEO of Silverwing Social Welfare Corp., which runs Shintomi. “We brought them in mostly to improve the working environment, keep staffers from getting back injuries and make things safer.”
What they have done, he said, is boost the morale of both staff and residents. “That’s brought a peace of mind among the staff and the residents feel supported.”