Japan's Futuristic Approach to Aging PDF Print E-mail
Post by RON CAPPELLO/Huffington Post   
Saturday, 18 August 2012 16:00


The scenario seems the stuff of pulp science fiction: An isolated civilization rapidly ages, with too few youngsters to support a growing population of old adults. Leaders instead look to build the next generation out of robots.

Robots are also a focus of elder-care research elsewhere, including the United States, where applications include aides for health care and rehabilitation. U.S. hospitals will deploy thousands of "service robots" in the next few years to help with the menial labor that accompanies a growing American elderly population, the Wall Street Journal recently reported. The robotic couriers might carry medications or a load of laundry down hospital corridors.

With its faster-growing elderly population, Japan has been quicker to embrace robots. In 2005, Japanese factories were using more than 370,000 robots, according to the Associated Press, which is three times as many as were active in the U.S. A 2007 plan from Japan's Trade Ministry projected that one million industrial robots could be installed by 2025, and with an industrial robot typically as productive as 10 workers, they could replace about 15% of Japan's workforce.

Some of Japan's robots have that humanoid look of science fiction, reflecting a Japanese fascination in movies and literature with mechanized friends who look like us. Well known is the Asimo from manufacturing giant Honda, whose two-legged movements appear remarkably human even if its face is a blank mask. Competitor Toyota has an android that can play a trumpet by actually blowing air with its lips against the horn.

Both companies say their robots are prototypes for future, more sophisticated versions that could, among other uses, serve as mechanized aides for the nation's elderly.

More practical for the near term are robots that don't look like a human. Panasonic, for one, has demonstrated a bed that can convert into a wheelchair on voice command, as well as a robot designed to help wash the hair of the elderly who are losing use of their arms. "Our concept is to provide a total solution for the silver society, not only for Japan but also the world," a Panasonic executive told Agence France-Presse.

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