By >RENO J. TIBKE
Dear Assistive Robot Industry, We Need You! Sincerely, Rapidly Aging Japan.
Okay, so what’s an assistive robot?
Well, they’re a lot more cool and useful and tech than it might sound. Think of them more like… social robots, or maybe cybernetic enhancements, or, some years down the road, but not too many, complete physical entities capable of semi-autonomously moving about and taking action in everyday life on behalf of their owner.
As tools, assistive robots passively or actively bridge the gap between what we might refer to as “normal” everyday life and that of someone working to overcome an age-related, injury-related, or even emotional disability. There are basically three active and emerging sectors in assistive robotics: telepresence, physical enhancement, and stand-alone assistants.
And Japan needs these robots, like – really needs them.
Now, for the sake of framing the discussion, let’s quickly digress from robot geekery and get hip to a just a bit of social science: Japan has a super-serious national issue, the very uncreatively named Population Problem. And robots play a role… or, will. In broad strokes, it breaks down like this:
A. Nearly 40% of Japan’s population is 55 or older, but the birthrate is 1.39 per female (2012 est.) and has been low for a while; a massive, virtually unstoppable population decline is well underway.
B. Due to A, those who would comprise a future labor force aren’t going to be born, and those who’ll come to need a greater assistive and services-related labor force are increasing in number.
This means a big, big labor shortage exactly when, forgive the pun, more labor would be a good thing. Further compounding the issue, 70%+ of Japan’s GDP is based on services for humans, by humans. Alright then – this all makes sense, and we can see the problem at hand. So, who’s going to do the work?
If you guessed robots, well… come on now, that was pretty easy.
Not all the robots mentioned below are Japanese, but in contrast to last week’s feature on Japan’s Robot Renaissance, this is one area where Japan is at the forefront – both in development and need. It’s easy to imagine how assistive robotics can improve the lives of the elderly, the disabled, or the simply far from home, and there are numerous products available or in development. Let’s have a quick overview:
Telepresence Robots: Available Now
Robots like the Parrot AR 2.0 camera-equipped drone, the VGo telepresence robot, and even the simple iPhone powered Romo are all currently available. Rather than dispatching a nurse to a room, a robot equipped with Fujitsu’s pulse monitoring camera, for example, could be dispatched to check vitals, and the iPhone tank robot could be used to communicate, or to inspect a relative’s home. It’s unlikely that anybody’s going to keep an eye on grandma with the AR 2.0, but the point is that future telepresence robots don’t necessarily have to stay on the ground. In the near-term, products like these will likely dominate the market for practical assistive robotics both in business and at home.
As extensions of human communication, there’s obviously great psychological value in telepresence, but while they can extend our perception, they won’t do a lot for us physically. They won’t allow a 70 year-old farmer to lift a 20kg bag of rice into a truck, or amplify endurance enough to stay in the fields another 2-3 hours. But…
Powered Exoskeletal Enhancement: Almost, We’re Close.
These wearable, reactive, force-amplifying robots physically enhance the human body, and in some cases that might change an entire life. Clockwise from the top left, we have Cyberdyne’s powered exoskeleton arm, Honda’s Walk Assist, followed by their Stride Management system, and last, Cyberdyne’s legs-only version of the HAL suit. Several powered exoskeletons are also able to provide resistance for training or physical rehabilitation.
Using these assistive robotic devices, those who’d otherwise retire might remain in the labor force for a bit longer. Those who feel they cannot walk to the store could get that confidence back. A an injured child could gain new mobility. While providing obvious practical and psychological benefits, still none of these robotic devices are going to make your bed, feed you, grab a beer from the fridge, get you dressed, play a game of chess, or just keep you company. However…
Co-Habitation with Assistive Robots: Some Years Away (but not too many)
Now, to be fair to reality, this is where things get a bit more theoretical – though not entirely. From the top left we have Toyota’s Human Support Robot, the very social Aldebaran Robotics’ NAO, and the really-looks-fake-but-totally isn’t HRP-2, developed at the University of Tokyo. Yep, all these robots are real, and some have been available or used in research trials for several years. What sets them apart, obviously, is that they are independent physical things capable of assisting and supporting their human owner in a world built by humans for humans. Obviously that’s the endgame: a physically capable, communicative, culturally appropriate human-shaped assistive robot.
Along with an embodied robot helper/companion, an owner who uses telepresence devices and perhaps even some kind of powered suit would receive the best possible psychological and practical benefits of assistive robotics. The life-altering potential for a retiree or disabled person is profound, and people will quite likely develop considerable bonds with and dependence on the technology.
What happens when users begin thinking of robots as individuals, when the inevitable anthropomorphization takes hold, when, if even only in the perception of a single individual, it becomes he or she? Well, that’s probably a future robotics column, so to speak.
Japan is waiting.
The need, and the almost guaranteed demand for these devices is pressing and will only grow. As the world’s most rapidly aging society, Japan really is the test bed, so as more and more societies develop, as populations stabilize or decline, what we learn from the rise of assistive robotics here in Japan will inform decision making around the world.
Reno J. Tibke is the founder and operator of Anthrobotic.com and a contributor at the non-profit Robohub.org.