Do Androids Dream of Changing Bedpans?

Robots to the rescue for Japan's aging population


For Japan, what sounds like a blessing is in fact a dire national problem: Its people live a very, very long time.

With an average life expectancy of 85 for men and 87 for women, Japanese people are the longest lived in the world. Combine that with a low birth rate—just 1.41 children per woman—and you get a top-heavy country, with 22 percent of the population aged 65 or older.

Japan spends almost 30 percent of its annual budget on its social security program, the vast majority of which goes to medical care and pensions. But the budget is already overburdened; with a 227 percent debt-to-GDP ratio, Japan is also the most indebted country in the world.

One estimate by the Japanese government found that by 2060, the population will have dropped from 127 million down to 87 million—and that as much as 40 percent of the country could be seniors.

So who's going to take care of all those ojiisans and obassans?

Robots to the rescue! In 2009, the Japanese government set aside about $93 million for the "Home-use Robot Practical Application Project," intended to fund the development of robots for specific uses, such as carrying the elderly and infirm from one place to another.

In 2013, the government announced that it would spend more than $20 million a year subsidizing research into affordable robotics for use in nursing homes. According to the Bangor Daily News, the program would focus on four types of robots: a monitoring system to track the location of dementia patients, a robot movement aide to help the elderly walk, an Iron Man-like robot suit to help human health care workers lift the elderly, and an ambulatory toilet robot that can go to people who have trouble moving around.

Nursing care robots already exist, but they're very expensive, costing upwards of $160,000 each. One of the goals of the program is to bring the price down to about $1,000.

Both of these efforts represent a shift of sorts for Japan's robotics industry, which has long focused on general-use humanoid robots, such as Honda's ASIMO, a fully mobile robot that once played soccer (sort of) with President Obama. The problem with those robots is that, while they drive media interest, they end up being very expensive without being particularly productive. Japan's bottom line simply isn't helped much by a robot that can kick a ball at a foreign leader.

A robot nurse.

But inexpensive robots that perform useful tasks could be genuinely valuable—and profitable. Japan's Trade Ministry has estimated that nursing care robots will grow into a $3.3 billion industry over the next two decades.

In late 2013, the Health, Labour, and Welfare Ministry started recommending nursing care robots to select nursing homes, passing out information packets designed to increase familiarity with certain types of robots. It hopes to eventually transition those robots into wider home use: "Once they are widely used in care facilities," a senior Health Ministry official told the Japan Times, "the government will provide a range of support measures to make them available for care at home."

In the meantime, Japan's robot manufacturers haven't entirely given up on ambitious human-like robot projects: In June 2014, Japanese telecom giant Softbank introduced Pepper, billed as the first robot capable of reading human emotions. "Our aim is to develop affectionate robots that can make people smile," one Softbank executive said. In particular, according to news reports, the company was targeting the elderly.

Pepper went on sale in the fall of 2014, retailing for about $2,000. Early reports suggest that the emotional-reading capabilities leave a lot to be desired. ("I met an emotional robot and felt nothing," a writer for The Verge reported after a June demo.)

But robots may not need to be emotionally complex to help the elderly. In 2013, researchers writing in the Journal of Gerontological Nursing found that Paro, a cuddly therapeutic robot seal designed in Japan to help patients with dementia, found that the furry mechanical creations produce "a positive, clinically meaningful influence on quality of life, increased levels of pleasure and also reduced displays of anxiety." For a nation deeply anxious about the consequences of getting older, robot helpers are one less reason to worry.

But there are tradeoffs. Japan's subsidized robots are intended to make up for national shortages in human health workers—and a long history of restrictionist immigration policies. In 2010 the country had just 1.3 million nursing care workers, a far cry from the 2 million the Health Ministry estimated were necessary and woefully short of the 4 million the ministry expects will be needed in 2025. Restrictions on immigrant workers make the situation even more dire: Japanese citizens are legally prohibited from hiring foreign workers to help with senior or child care.

The subsidies, then, function as a way of avoiding higher immigration levels. For years, Japan has been notoriously resistant to immigration. Of its current population, less than two percent are from outside the country, and the nation has traditionally only allowed about 50,000 immigrant visas each year—far less than the 700,000 estimated to be necessary to keep population levels afloat.

In early 2014, reports suggested that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might allow for expanded immigration, perhaps as many as 200,000 newcomers each year. But by summer, he had backed off the idea. "In countries that have accepted immigration," he declared on a Japanese TV show, according to The Financial Times, "there has been a lot of friction, a lot of unhappiness both for the newcomers and the people who already lived there."

Robot workers might provide some assistance for the country's aging population, but they won't do much to solve the nation's underlying fiscal problems: They don't pay taxes, start businesses, or contribute directly to a growing economy. At best, they'll make it easier for Japan to grow old. But unlike immigrants, they won't make the country young again.