Robots to transform Japan’s social care by 2020
social care robots in japan

Robots to transform Japan’s social care by 2020

As a global leader in all things autonomous, it’s no surprise that Japan is looking to robotics to revolutionise social care. But in such a sensitive sector, the barriers to mass adoption may be psychological as much as technological.  

The number of people in Japan aged 65 or older is expected to reach more than seven million by 2025. By that same point in time, the country predicts a shortfall of 370,000 caregivers. So in pure mathematical terms, a workforce of robots ready to fill the void has obvious potential.

However, the greatest challenge is likely to be encouraging communities to embrace the technology.

Read more: Robot swans to measure water quality in Singapore

Relying on robots to restore independence

Robots have the potential to ease the burden on overstretched social care staff by restoring elderly citizens’ autonomy, believes Dr Hirohisa Hirukawa, director of robot innovation research at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.

“Robotics cannot solve all of these issues; however, robotics will be able to make a contribution to some of these difficulties,” he said.

Read more: Stonelin launches IoT trackers for social care and logistics

But there is still much to be done, as outlined in Japan’s overarching Robot Strategy. The report proposes that four out of every five care recipients will have some form of robotic support by 2020.

Currently, robots designed to help lift people in care facilities have been deployed in just eight per cent of the country’s nursing homes, for example.

Hirukawa sees plenty of room for improvement, both in terms of reducing the cost of the technology and fostering an atmosphere of acceptance towards it.

“The mindset of the people on the frontline of caregiving is that it must be human beings who provide this kind of care,” he said. “And on the side of those who receive care, of course initially there will be psychological resistance.”

Among the priorities for Japan’s social care robot development are lifting aids, mobility aids, wearable devices, and bots to support bathing and getting dressed.

Situational robots are preferred to all-around helpers. For example, one robotic mobility aid demonstrated by Hirukawa has built-in sensors that read the lie of the land. In this way, an elderly user could be assisted when on a steep incline, for example, while an automatic brake could help to reduce falls when going downhill.

Read more: Australian researchers partner with Huawei for smart healthcare

Plus: Wearable MRI offers speedy brain scans

In related medical news, San Fransisco startup Openwater has unveiled a wearable device capable of  scanning the brain with a resolution a billion times higher than traditional MRI machines.

The device has been designed to fit inside a simple hat and relies on optoelectronics to build a picture of the brain.

Openwater’s stated ambition is for the device to track the flow of oxygenated blood to different parts of the brain and, eventually, to read thoughts in real time.

Internet of Business says

As Malek Murison explains, some of the barriers to robotic social and healthcare are local, cultural, and psychological, and there are risks in dehumanising the ways in which we look after vulnerable people.

But there are global reasons for automating some aspects of care, too. Japan is just one of a number of countries that are exploring the use of robotics, AI, and assistive technologies to help support an ageing population. In the UK, for example, the 65+ population will increase from 12 million today to 17 million by 2035. At the same time, investment in social care is falling in real terms by one-third. This is why robotic systems could complement human workers in the long term – despite the prohibitive costs at present.

Other technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, could help elderly or physically disabled people to lead more independent lives, outside of the traditional care system.

But first, specialist robots must overcome some serious technological challenges to work in health and social care. Among these are scene awareness, social intelligence, communication, data security, safe autonomy, safe failure, cleanliness, and validation by medical authorities. Last year, UK-RAS, the UK’s umbrella organisation for robotics and autonomous systems research, published an excellent white paper on the subject, which you can find here.