One of the only predictions that I have stood by for years is that Japan will be the place where robots finally become household fixtures. With one in five Japanese citizens now aged 65 or older, various robotics technologies are being developed to prolong independent living and improve quality of life at home. By the middle of the century, almost half of Japan's population will be over the age of 65, but even now Japan lacks sufficient nursing care workers to care for the elderly. Japan needed an estimated 2 million nursing care workers in 2010, but the actual number of workers was 1.33 million in 2010. Japan will need 4 million such workers in 2025. Instead, already a range of specialized robots have been developed, from machines that help people to walk, to others that assist with mobility.
Japan's high-tech maker Hitachi announced the development of a mobility-support robot "ROPITS" (Robot for Personal Intelligent Transport System) in Tsukuba in Ibaraki prefecture on March 12, 2013. In order to raise the level of autonomous travel technology to a practical level, Hitachi has been participating in the Mobility Robot Experiment Special District ("Tsukuba Special District") in the City of Tsukuba, in Ibaraki prefecture since 2011.
Paro, a robot manufactured in Japan and modeled after a baby harp seal (with soft fur covering the electronics inside, of course), was introduced in clinical settings to help patients with dementia. When it the robot pet was found to be helpful in that setting, researchers began to experiment with other applications. Paro has been in use across Japan and Europe since 2003 and has been approved as a medical device for the United States mainly for pediatric hospitals, elderly patients, and schools for autistic children in therapeutic gatherings.
There are already some prototypes and companies who have developed humanoid nursing care robots that can lift and hold patients, but they remain extremely expensive, costing as much as 20 million yen (approx. 200,000 dollars) each, hence they are not widely used. The government plans to extend financial assistance to help firms develop low-cost nursing care robots with a price tag of about 100,000 yen each. Such robots with limited functions are designed to assist elderly people in daily activities and reduce the burden of nursing care workers.
The government hopes to revise nursing care insurance coverage to include the use of such robots, which could make rental charges as low as several hundred yen per month, the sources added.
Four kinds of nursing care robots are included in the envisaged plan:
- A motorized robot suit that can assist in lifting or moving elderly and otherwise impaired patients so that caretakers do not need to exert as much physical strength.
- An ambulatory robot that can help the elderly and others walk by themselves, even on inclines.
- A portable, self-cleaning robot toilet that can be placed in living rooms or bedrooms to make using the toilet easier for the elderly and others.
- A monitoring robot that can track the movements and whereabouts of dementia patients.