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Japan’s robots build cars and entertain youngsters. Can they care for the old and the sick?

KITAKYUSHU CITY, JAPAN – Earthquake evacuations will never be the same. Meet T-53 Enryu®, a fearsome, 11-foot-tall robot with giant, multi-jointed arms and the growl of a tractor. Designed to rescue trapped victims, this ambidextrous creature can move into a devastated zone and pick up and toss aside heavy wooden blocks and other large debris like so many chopsticks.

Japan is Cool Robot Central. As fast as you can say, “Everything is go, Astro Boy!” a new model joins a staggering array of robots that play musical instruments, calm frazzled motorists, and gracefully two-step through TV commercials. There are robots that play soccer, dance, climb trees, and swim, not to mention all the functions they perform on auto assembly lines. Osaka University Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro has even spawned his own eerily lifelike, silicone-skinned twin.

Now, the nation that has long dominated industrial robotics is grappling with ways robots can tackle society’s other challenges. One is relieving firefighters of heavy-lifting burdens after an earthquake, thereby speeding rescues. Yet a more complicated problem looms, that of how Japan’s shrinking workforce will care for a growing elderly population. Officials once were confident that robots would provide a panacea for a worker shortage, boasting, “We don’t need immigrants.” But the need for nursing care has outpaced such projections, forcing Japan to set aside its wariness of foreigners and admit 1,000 Indonesian nurses in 2008.

“The government’s attitude towards the nursing care issue has drastically changed,” says Shigeaki Yanai, general manager of the Japan Robot Association. “Japan has come to realize that nursing work is backbreaking and badly paid — and yet, we’ve got a surging senior population that needs caregivers, right now.”

According to Nikkei Shimbun, the health and welfare ministry estimates that the country will need an additional 40,000 to 50,000 new healthcare workers each year, just to keep up with the aging population. Attrition in the sector is unusually high — more than a fifth of such workers quit each year, compared with the 15 percent average for all workers. Sixty percent of healthcare facilities say they are short-staffed.

“In a factory, tasks are highly defined, but in the hospital or home, it’s extremely difficult to home in on and standardize work,” Shigeaki Yanai, general manager of the Japan Robot AssociationThus, goals for the robotic workforce have begun to shift. Instead of targeting robots to replace retiring workers, a mission has developed to design robots that can augment the horsepower of humans and alleviate the work of caregivers. Japan has long sought to adapt robots to work in the home. It had hoped that by 2010 “the home market would be as large as the industrial market, and that by 2025, home and medical applications would outstrip industrial uses by a factor of six,” comments Damian Thong, an electronics analyst with Macquarie Securities.

However, Thong adds, “We are really far off this trajectory.” Exploits on the factory floor have so far failed to translate into success with robots in the home. “In a factory, tasks are highly defined, but in the hospital or home, it’s extremely difficult to home in on and standardize work,” says Yanai. Disappointingly, there is as yet no T-53 Enryu® for elder care. Much has been written about the winsome companion robot Paro, which keeps retirees entertained and mentally engaged. But the real need is helping to bathe, feed, and care for the country’s burgeoning population of seniors.

Helping the Helpers

Still, a number of researchers are determined to make headway, believing that if a robot can’t perform all the functions of home and nursing care, it can help one person do the work of several. “Robots could do the jobs that don’t absolutely require humans, such as carrying heavy things or helping the helpers,” says Motoki Korenaga, deputy director for technology affairs of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

At Waseda University’s Sugano Laboratory, a wheelchair-mounted robotic arm is being tested to aid disabled patients, while with the TWENDY-ONE, researchers aim to make a robot brawny enough to lift a human yet sensitive enough to perform delicate tasks like cracking an egg. Elsewhere, experiments are being conducted to use robots for light housekeeping.

Homes are being redesigned to accommodate robots. In southern Japan, the city of Fukuoka is experimenting with embedding floors and walls with IC tags to guide the ’bots. “You could say, ‘Bring me a beer from the fridge,’” says Hiroyoshi Doi, a director in the economic promotion bureau of Fukuoka City. With robot assistance, a human home helper could handle not just four patients, but 10, he believes.

One of the most attention-grabbing inventions was unveiled last October by Yoshiyuki Sankai, CEO of Cyberdyne Inc. A systems and information engineering professor at the University of Tsukuba, Sankai has fabricated several varieties of his wearable HAL® robot suit. But for Cyberdyne’s first commercial launch, he settled on a stripped-down version of the Hybrid Assistive Limb® exoskeleton strapped onto one or both legs. With a battery pack positioned at the small of the back, the entire apparatus weighs about 25 pounds — and is slightly reminiscent of a Lara Croft costume.

Electrodes like those used in electrocardiograms are placed on the skin, intercepting neural transmissions from the brain and sending these marching orders to the plastic extremities, which do the heavy lifting on behalf of a wearer’s atrophied limbs. With practice, wheelchair-bound patients and paralysis victims are able to walk with a reasonably normal gait.

Cyberdyne, working with builder Daiwa House, aims to produce and lease 500 robot suits a year, for approximately U.S. $2,300 per month, to hospitals, senior care centers, and other facilities, initially in Japan and then in Denmark, before expanding to the United States and other countries. Robotic suits will also be given arms and be customized for the workplace and jobs that require brute force.

A female staffer demonstrating the device said that normal strolling was virtually effortless. But it’s clear that HAL® is just getting his sea legs – its battery goes only an hour per charge, and wearers aren’t liberated from their canes and wheelchairs. At best, the device allows them to move around with a cane or along rails used for rehabilitation.

“Hello, Aoi!”

Most of the robots made in Japan come from major manufacturers — Sony, Honda, Toyota — or universities such as Tsukuba, Waseda, and Osaka. A rare exception is tmsuk, a start-up located on Kyushu island, with 18 employees, 11 of them engineers. Tmsuk founder Yoichi Takamoto eschews the term “personal” in favor of “practical” ’bots. All are intended to help create a “safe and comfortable society in which people and robots can coexist,” as the company’s website states.

tmsuk, a start-up located on Kyushu island, with 18 employees, 11 of them engineers. Tmsuk founder Yoichi Takamoto eschews the term “personal” in favor of “practical” ’bots.At present, the firm has produced a welter of prototypes in addition to the debris-lifting Enryu. A security guard robot “sees” intruders, transmits the images to a human guard, and then, if the intruder ignores orders, sprays it with a cloud of smoke. In the category of “greeter” robots, a ’bot has been installed in a hospital in northern Japan to help visitors navigate the maze of hallways and lighten up the atmosphere, so that relatives may be more likely to visit sick family members, Takamoto says.

At the nearby Aeon shopping mall, close to Fukuoka Airport, tmsuk has installed a perky, yellow-and-white ’bot to entertain children and foster familiarity with humanoid technology. Children registered with the shopping center can get a bit of personalized chatter from the robot: “Hello, Aoi,” the ’bot says after a 7-year-old girl swipes her barcoded ID card on its reader. “She never gets tired of it,” her mother observes. “We have to go visit the robot every time we come here.” The mall PR agent Kenichi Mitsuji admits that the robot hasn’t generated more repeat business or otherwise lifted the bottom line. But the company sees value in its presence, as a robot “burnishes our brand, differentiates us from competitors, and gives us a modern image.”

No matter what the rubric, personal robots won’t be successful until they become as useful and inexpensive as personal computers, says Yanai. However novel the products emerging from tmsuk and other firms prove to be, they are still beyond the pocketbooks of most consumers.

Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University, agrees: “Cost is the biggest hurdle” to the widespread adoption of robots for elder care. The only home robot to achieve outstanding commercial success, he points out, is Roomba, the autonomous vacuum cleaner that was a U.S. defense tech spin-off. In the United States, creating robots for military use “is easy,” says Ishiguro, “because they have a huge budget and a built-in mass user base,” advantages that Japan, with its civilian focus, lacks. Major Japanese corporations are often maladroit at pioneering new uses for robots, while smaller, creative firms like tmsuk are chronically underfunded. Tmsuk’s Takamoto has even considered moving his operation to South Korea to reduce costs.

Ishiguro feels confident that his country, with its solid tradition of electronics and factory automation, will find a way to conquer this hurdle. “Japan has more vending machines than any other country in the world,” he says. “The U.S. invented dishwashers. But now, Japan makes them better.” Developing robots capable of the precise and demanding tasks required for elder care is not simply a matter of refining existing technology, however. And with Japan’s senior population reaching levels of 41 percent by mid-century, advances in personal robotic technology are becoming more urgent than ever. The question is whether researchers can innovate fast enough to keep up.

Lucille Craft is a freelance writer based in Japan.




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