Eldercare has taken an innovative turn with the rise of robot caregivers, or carebots. Japan has spearheaded the technology to address the nation's growing senior population and increasing shortage of caregivers. The trend is not limited to Japan, however.
The United Nations estimates that the global population of seniors 65 and older will rise by 181% by 2050. In the United States, the number of Americans over 65 is expected to nearly double, from 43.1 million today to 83.7 million. Though the issue will likely not be as pressing in the U.S. as it will be in Japan, the fact remains: With not enough caregivers to meet the needs of a growing senior population, we will likely rely on robots for some areas of eldercare. Japan has taken an innovative approach to address the challenge.
The Emergence of Robot Caregivers
Over recent years, the government of Japan has funneled millions of dollars into the research and development of carebots. In fact, the government has invested one-third of its budget to developing carebots. This support has helped lead to the production of carebots with greater functionality and broader consumer appeal for seniors, such as mobile servant robots, physical assistant robots and person-carrier robots. Merrill Lynch forecasts that the global market for personal robots, including carebots, could reach $17.4 billion in 2020.
Paro, a touch-sensitive electronic harp seal, was one of the first carebots, developed to keep patients with dementia occupied. Among the benefits that the maker cites are stress reduction and improved socialization. Further innovations like Palro were meant to keep seniors physically and mentally active by playing games, dancing and testing them with trivia. ChihiraAico, a robot caregiver designed to look like a woman in her 30s, aimed to make seniors feel comfortable enough to discuss their problems.
Perhaps one of the most successful robots for eldercare was SoftBank's Pepper. This personal robot was designed to read and react to human emotions. It was considered a breakthrough in helping a person's ability to connect with robots. In fact, it was so popular that when it went on sale in Japan, the whole supply of 1,000 robots sold out in about a minute.
Other robots have been developed to help with mobility and alleviate physical strains. The Encore Smart, for example, is a specially assisted walker, and the Robear is capable of lifting and carrying a patient. Meanwhile, the Hybrid Assisted Limbs (abbreviated as HALs) is designed to help increase mobility for patients who have suffered strokes or other physically debilitating conditions. It works as an exoskeleton and reacts to electrical pulses from the brain, prompting it to aid the limbs in moving.
While carebots cannot fully replace the value of personal connection and the power of human touch, they are a potentially effective and practical solution in eldercare. As robotic design and development progresses, so likely will the acceptance of these droids as caregivers for the elderly.
Mark Hay, "Why Robots Are the Future of Elder Care," Good, June 24, 2016, www.good.is/articles/robots-elder-care-pepper-exoskeletons-japan.
Danielle Muoio, "Japan Is Running Out of People to Take Care of the Elderly, So It's Making Robots Instead," Tech Insider, November 20, 2015, www.techinsider.io/japan-developing-carebots-for-elderly-care-2015-11.