Robots fill labour gap

TOKYO – Paro, the furry seal, cries softly while an elderly woman pets it. Pepper, a humanoid, waves while leading a group of senior citizens in exercises. The upright Tree guides a disabled man taking shaky steps, saying in a gentle feminine voice, “right, left, well done!”

Robots have the run of Tokyo’s Shin-tomi nursing home, which uses 20 different models to care for its residents. The Japanese government hopes it will be a model for harnessing the country’s robotics expertise to help cope with a swelling elderly population and dwindling workforce.

Allowing robots 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 them 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.”

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 Japanese government has been funding development of elder care robots to help fill a projected shortfall of 380,000 specialised workers by 2025.

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 Shin-tomi the past year from countries including China, South Korea and the Netherlands.

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 in 2016, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

But METI estimates the domestic industry alone will grow to 400 billion yen ($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 ageing populations. Clearly robotics is part of that package to address those needs.”

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 labour,” said METI’s Yasuda. “If workers have more time, they can do other tasks.”