Its emphasis on robotics is perhaps Japan’s most identifiable contribution to the digital health revolution. Japan’s creation of robots for the healthcare field is borne partly from its drive towards maintaining a technological edge, but also because its society is aging faster than any country in the world—a continuing threat to its economic prosperity.
One-fourth of the Japanese population, or 31.9 million, are older than 65. According to the WHO World Health Statistics 2014 report, Japanese men have a life expectancy of 80—seventh-longest among nations—while Japanese women have the longest life expectancy in the world at 87 years. The low birth rate of 1.2 births per woman isn’t keeping up with the rate of people entering old age. That means there aren’t enough people to take care of seniors, whose numbers are growing, but who are unable to contribute their fullest to the Japanese economy as a viable workforce.
Through robotics, Japan is creating a digital health solution to take care of its graying population.
A pioneer and world leader in robotics, Japan has expanded its expertise from making industrial robotics to now designing robots for the medical, care and service sectors. In the past several years, Japanese engineers have created different types of robots to assist doctors, nurses, caregivers and patients in hospitals and homes.
During Japan Robot Week 2014, CEATEC, and other events this year, Japanese companies showcased the latest iterations of these robots. Here are some examples:
• Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) (Cyberdyne Inc.): Described as a “cyborg-type robot that can supplement, expand or improve physical capability”; essentially a powered exoskeleton suit that assists paraplegic patients to walk and regain independence by translating impulses from the brain into motor movements
• Aiko Chihira (Toshiba Corp.): First humanoid communication android that uses sign language; uses 43 servomotors that move her arms and hands; can man receptions, serve as guides and as caregivers to elderly and patients suffering from dementia
• Pepper (Softbank): Personal humanoid robot that uses an “emotional engine” and a cloud-based artificial intelligence system that could analyze expressions, gestures and voice tones of humans it interacts with, and then forms its own emotional responses; can assist seniors and the sick in performing activities of daily living; designed as home care companions and nursing assistants
Other Japanese companies that have recently launched robots for the elderly home care services market include Panasonic, Yaskawa Electric and Toyota.
Panasonic is already selling a robotic bed that converts into a wheelchair, and is developing another robot that assists the elderly in ambulating and toileting. The company is also launching a medical robot that automatically sorts out injection drugs for patients.
Yaskawa is creating a robot that helps a bedridden patient transfer from a bed into a wheelchair.
Toyota is developing a robot that can assist patients who have trouble walking.
RIKEN and Tokai Rubber Industries earlier introduced their robot nurse called RIBA (Robot for Interactive Body Assistance) which can lift up patients who weigh up to 80kg.
Medical robots in Japan have gone a long way from the toy-like Aibo dog made by Sony and the walking and dancing, child-sized robot Asimo created by Honda. Japanese engineers are further honing the technology to make more sophisticated care service robots who are more adept at communicating with humans and can help the sick and the elderly with complex everyday tasks at home safely.
The Japanese government recognizes the great potential of robots in many areas. It recently convened a “robotics revolution” council to support the expansion of the robotics industry in the next five years.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe instructed the council to: “work out a strategy for using robots as the key means to solve labor shortages amid the declining birthrate and aging population, low productivity of the services sector and other challenges plaguing Japan and for developing the robot industry into a growth sector to explore global markets.”
“I plan to make robots a key pillar of our growth strategy,” Mr. Abe said when he announced a growth target for the local robotics market of Y2.4 trillion ($22 billion) by 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympic Games.
The establishment of international safety standards for personal care robots could accelerate this plan.
From an estimated $155 million in 2015, the Japanese government’s long-term estimate for the market for care service robots is projected to be valued at $3.7 billion by 2035. According to Japan’s Machine Industry Memorial Foundation, the country “could save 2.1 trillion yen (about $21 billion) in health care costs each year by using robots to monitor the nation’s elderly.”