TOKYO—They won’t be leaping tall buildings in a single bound, but Japan’s growing number of elderly may someday have a new lease on life that allows them to care for themselves—and maybe even pump a little iron.
As the country’s population ages rapidly and its workforce shrinks, care workers may be hard to come by, so researchers are trying to develop the ultimate personal care givers: robots.
“Unlike the United States or Europe, Japan is reluctant to allow in cheap foreign laborers,” said Takashi Gomi, president of Canada-based Applied AI Systems Inc., whose company has developed a prototype of an “intelligent” wheelchair that can move around on its own and sense obstacles to avoid them.
“I don’t think this will change easily in the next 20 to 30 years, so robots are about the only solution,” said Gomi, a Canadian researcher born in Japan.
Right now, most robots are used in factories. But many Japanese researchers have begun developing mechanical helpers for use in homes, offices, hospitals and nursing facilities.
Turning to robots makes economic sense.
A government report said in May that annual demand for non-factory “service robots” may reach 1.1 trillion yen ($9.75 billion) in 2015, when one in four Japanese is expected to be 65 or older.
Yoshiyuki Sankai is among those who see robots as the future of elderly health care.
A researcher at Japan’s University of Tsukuba, Sankai has developed a robotic suit designed to make it easier for elderly people with weak muscles to move around or for care-givers to lift them.
The sleek, high-tech get-up looks like a white suit of armor. It straps onto a person’s arms, legs and back and is equipped with a computer, motors and sensors that detect electric nerve signals transmitted from the brain when a person tries to move his limbs.
When the sensors detect the nerve signals, the computer starts up the relevant motors to assist the person’s motions.
Sankai says the suit, dubbed “Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) 5,” can let a person who can barely do an 176-pound leg press handle 397 pounds.
“The big goal is to expand or strengthen the physical capability of humans,” said Sankai, who set up a venture firm last year to market the robot suit and plans to start leasing HAL-5 to the elderly and disabled in Japan this year.