By >RENO J. TIBKE
Japan’s Taking Robot Action: Honda, Sekisui House, and New Government Funding
Everyday Robots, the Ones That Have Forever Been Coming… They Might Actually Get Here?
Well, in Japan, anyway. Two massive companies and one or two government agencies have assembled some intriguing and aggressive robot launchpad situations, and the game might be changing from “what the distant future will bring” to “what’s going to be in place in 3 years.”
Before jumping into to why things are different this time, it’s important to be fair to those less enthusiastic or perhaps bitterly incredulous about such claims. Wild projections and plans for robotic life accessories, robotic nurses, doctors, cops, soldiers, and perhaps even friends & lovers have long been subject to entirely reasonable criticism and dismissal. Very rightfully so, because all the amazing robots of the future have been kinda perpetually just that; of the future.
It’s easy to discredit theories and hopes and what-ifs, but it gets tricky when non-intuitive collaborations arise and money starts flowing in from both the private sector and the government. As it often does with the robots, Japan’s recently taken a few big steps:
First, global automotive & industrial powerhouse Honda announced a new robotics-related development partnership with Japanese construction & real estate giant Sekisui House. Honda makes three assistive robots: UNI-CUB, a rolly self-balancing chair-bot, and the mobility-assistive robots Bodyweight Support Assist and Stride Management Assist (more energy put into engineering than naming, but forgivable – previous coverage here). Teaming up with Sekisui House looks to be an avenue for Honda to sort of insert its robots beyond demos and gimmickry and directly into homes – homes ergonomically designed with humans and their robotic appliances & amenities in mind.
For its part, Sekisui House appears to have recognized robotics’ imminent matriculation beyond hope & theory into practical, pressing consideration – followed by implementation. It’s telling that a company with no real vested interest in robots yet an obvious and fundamental interest in profit wants to get dialed into Honda’s stuff early and often.
Second, item #2 in the big developments department is that, just days ago, the Japanese government detailed plans to begin large-scale funding for assistive robotics research and development in conjunction with consumer-end subsidies for the consumption of robot-based healthcare. Important here is that it’s not projected funding for some vague, far-off day to be decided after the completion of a survey or study or what have you, it’s funding for this fiscal year. To move forward in incorporating practical robots into human healthcare, alongside the R&D push are initiatives aimed at revising insurance codes to cover assistive robotic devices and/or services for the elderly or disabled.
For the R&D part, the government initiative calls specifically for the following:
• A motorized robot suit that can assist in lifting or moving elderly and otherwise impaired patients.
• 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.
• A monitoring robot that can track the movements and whereabouts of dementia patients.
Conveniently, we once again see Honda’s options for early adopters:
And with a little careful market positioning and some decent design, Sekisui House will have just the place to put them.
The Why: an Unstoppable Force Meets a Fleet of Robots
Readers interested in the big breakdown of Why Japan? and Why Now? should leap on over to our March 2013 piece and get hip to what translates pretty directly as The Nation-Wide Existential Really Kinda Big-Deal Population Problem: “Dear Assistive Robot Industry, We Need You! Sincerely, Rapidly Aging Japan.”
The very basic recipe for Japan’s motivation toward developing robot labor breaks down like this:
1. The affluent children of two post-war baby-boom generations have for several decades been increasingly unmotivated toward the baby making, 2. the resulting birthrate in Japan has dropped far lower than 2.0 (which would be a replacement set for the two parents, i.e., population equilibrium), 3. Around 98.5% of Japan’s 130 million or so humans are ethnically and racially Japanese, and to put it gently, foreign residents aren’t so likely to be asked how long they hope to stay, but when they’re going home. That is to say, it’s unlikely that an immigrant labor force will be allowed or would want to take care of: 4. Nearly 40% of Japan’s population is 55 or older.
It’s Worth Believing This Time:
In Japan, and really anywhere in the world, the pop-culture image of robotics and their capabilities is served up in sci-fi fantasy. As such, the reality can be a bit deflating, and one cannot really fault the average citizen for feeling that the promise of advanced robotics has been a long wait for a train that never arrived – and probably never will.
However, along with nearly every other branch of science, robotics is now subject to the massive leaps in computational capability that’ve put everything technology-related, i.e., the entirety of human civilization, into super-tech overdrive. To the slightly robo-dorkier among us, it’s clear that we’re entering new territory, and the future – the near future, is very bright.
And another way to tell is when seemingly unrelated Japanese companies start aligning robotics initiatives, and rather conservative government agencies start earmarking real robo-cash. This should be very, very interesting.
Reno J. Tibke is the founder and operator of Anthrobotic.com and a contributor at the non-profit Robohub.org.