Japan Is Rolling Out Robots In Nursing Homes Offices And Schools As Its Population Ages And Workforce Shrinks

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Japan Is Rolling Out Robots In Nursing Homes Offices And Schools As Its Population Ages And Workforce Shrinks

Japan is changing: a rapidly ageing society, a record-breaking influx of visitors from overseas, and more robots than ever. That’s where the country’s young people come in. Gen J, a new series by BBC Worklife, keeps you up to speed on how the nation’s next generation is shaping the Japan of tomorrow.

Japan Is Rolling Out Robots In Nursing Homes Offices And Schools As Its Population Ages And Workforce Shrinks

At a sleek office building in Shinagawa, Tokyo, workers are strolling in and out for lunch. As they walk through the glass doors, they pass two security guards, each dutifully flanking the passage in stern silence. It all seems pretty unremarkable, until you realise one of those security guards is a robot.

Standing up to five feet tall with wheels and a blue police cap, “his” name is Ugo. His battery lasts up to half a work day, and every two hours he’ll do a routine patrol around the building – even summoning lifts by pushing the call button himself. His digital “face” – which usually displays two big blue cartoony eyes – is replaced with the Japanese text for “on duty”.

“It’s important for the robot to feel cute, so you’re not intimidated,” says Ken Matsui, CEO of Mira Robotics, the start-up behind Ugo. Right now, the police bot – whose built-in camera allows guards downstairs to see things from the robot’s point of view – is one of only two prototypes in the country. But Matsui says companies in China and South Korea are interested in his company’s work, which also includes cleaning robots for use in houses and schools.

In Tokyo’s Silver Wing nursing home, about two dozen seniors are sitting in the common area as pudding cups are distributed. In the middle of the room is a staff member and a humanoid robot named Pepper, who is leading the room in group games and exercises.

Pepper’s hosting a game of “guess the kanji”, as a big screen shows super-magnified parts of Chinese characters that the crowd have to identify aloud. Many of the residents are dementia patients.

“We ask residents with dementia where they are and who they are in natural conversation with communication robots and human staff,” says Kimiya Ishikawa, director of Silver Wing. “It’s hard [for humans compared to robots] to remember each resident’s personal information, so robots are utilised [to help] in that area.”

But it’s not only in the common room that robotics is being employed. Upstairs, staff have access to robotic exoskeletons that fit around the waist and lower back: these apparatuses ease the severe body strain as they help their elderly clients get in and out of bed. (Some studies have shown that over 80% of nurses in Japan experience lower back problems.)

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“Japan is facing major demographic challenges due to the elderly wave, low fertility rates and a shrinking population. This leads to a number of issues facing Japanese society which the West can learn from,” says Roger A Søraa, robotics researcher at Centre for Technology and Society in Norway. “Elderly care facilities and hospitals see a severe lack of healthcare workers; there are not enough humans to do the tasks the way they used to be done.”

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Kayoko Fujimoto, chairperson of trustees for the Ryusei Fukushikai Social Welfare Foundation, runs a nursing home in Hyogo prefecture, about 100km southwest of Kyoto. Last year she wrote a bestselling book seeking to reinvent the image of nursing home work, and she thinks robots can help.

At the Hyogo nursing home, staff have rolled out several robots that have been big hits with residents, like Paro the talking, fuzzy baby seal bot, which was developed a decade ago. Residents love to play with him because he’s cute, and the staff love him because he’s clean, doesn’t require food and no one’s allergic to him.

Japan Is Rolling Out Robots In Nursing Homes Offices And Schools As Its Population Ages And Workforce Shrinks

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