In America and other ageing societies around the world, it has become common for the elderly to be cared for by their greying children or older workers. That’s largely because the younger labour force is shrinking, and few want to do such low-paying, back-aching work.
Japan sees an answer in robots. At Minami Tsukuba nursing home near Tokyo, caregiver Asami Konishi wears a robotic device on her hips that cuts the stress on her back when she bends and lifts someone. “It really helps when I have to pick up a heavier male patient,” said the 34-year-old.
The lumbar device and other cyborg suits made by Cyberdyne Inc can help the wearer build strength and restore mobility, like standing up and walking. Cyberdyne’s gear works by reading bioelectric signals from the brain to the muscles, thus mimicking and supporting the movement intended.
“It fuses the human and robots and information systems,” said Yoshiyuki Sankai, an engineer who founded Cyberdyne in 2004. Other bigger, more familiar Japanese firms also are developing robots to target the enfeebled and elderly.
Panasonic makes a robotic bed that transforms into a wheelchair. Sony’s robot puppy and other “carerobo” animals are seen as therapy for loneliness and dementia.
“Just looking at it makes people smile, exercising their facial muscles,” said Kenshin Noguchi, Minami Tsukuba’s business promotion manager, referring to Paro, the name of a furry baby seal robot designed by Japan’s Intelligent Systems Research.
Paro, which costs about US$3,700 (RM15,425), reacts to touch, sound and light. A hand grazes its whiskers and Paro’s head and legs move. Paro also blinks and lets out a harp seal’s cry.
At Minami Tsukuba, the robot usually sits on the office counter by the front door, where residents pass by and stroke or hug it.