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How robots will help the elderly

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Yes, the robots are coming. But they may be a little friendlier and more helpful than we thought. 

Across the world, our populations are ageing, except in Africa and India and while most of Asia has a younger population, Japan and China like North America are facing a rapidly ageing population and not enough young folks coming up to meet the care needs of the ageing, let alone many other jobs in these countries. 

Perhaps no other country is advanced on this front with robots than Japan. There’s Pepper the little robot and Paro, a furry seal. Pepper is designed to be a companion to the elderly who live alone. Aside from being able to carry on some fairly decent conversations, it can also remind them when to take medications and when they haven’t eaten in a while. If set periods of time pass with no engagement with Pepper, the robot can send a text message to an adult child or to a care facility and they can check on them.

Japan is facing a dire crises of far more elderly than young Japanese and so even the government is backing robotics programs to help. There is an expected shortfall of 380,000 jobs for elder care by 2025 there. The Japanese government is funding 20 robots in a senior care facility, Shin-tomo in Tokyo to study the interaction between humans and robots. 


While in the West, the thought of robots caring for us seems uneasy, in Japan its very different. In Japan, robots are largely portrayed in media and entertainment as being helpful and positive, versus the West where Hollywood gives us the Terminator and war robots. So adoption in Japan has been more accepted.

“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.”

Aside from the cultural issues of using robots, come concerns over costs for maintenance, safety and doubts around just how useful they can be. To date, more than 100 foreign groups have visited Shin-tomi the past year from countries including China, South Korea and the Netherlands. “It’s an opportunity for us,” said Atsushi Yasuda, director of the robotic policy office at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry or METI. “Other countries will follow the same trend.” Perhaps.

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. “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.” According to an article by Reuters.

Aside from robots, other types of technology is entering the market for eldery care. From motion detectors to monitor movement ensuring someone is doing okay, to wearable devices that will monitor pulse, blood oxygen and other key data.

A popular narrative in Western societies is that the world’s population is set to double over the next few decades. It isn’t. In fact, it’s shrinking. Population growth, according to the United Nations, actually opeaked in the late 1960’s and has been declining ever since. Pre-pandemic we were seeing a global average of about 2.1% but that is now expected to decline to 1.1% and may even drop to 0.1% by 2100. Another concern is the decrease in male fertility and children being born around the world. But the current population is ageing and there’s no bubble coming up behind to help. We may have little choice but to employ more robots and technology to help care for the elderly.

You might also enjoy this article on the rise of personal health technology.

Author: Giles Crouch is a digital anthropologist who works at the intersection of humans and technology. He often writes on this topic at sapient.d, his consulting firm. Giles is also Group Publisher for HUM@Nmedia, the parent brand of Silver Magazine.


Image courtesy: Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

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