Japan’s population is rapidly aging. Birth rates have been headed down since the early 1970s, and death rates have recently begun to creep up, with total numbers of deaths surpassing total numbers of births.
With growth rates on the decline and a strict immigration policy preventing the influx of new, younger workers from abroad, what is a country to do? In Japan’s case, many citizens have been hedging their bets on robotics. Not only could robots help fill manufacturing positions that would otherwise be left vacant, but could also help care for and even provide virtual companions for the nation’s growing elderly population.
To this end, several Japanese companies have created humanoid caregiver robots. These machines often feature cute, cartoonish features that give them a friendly, helpful appearance and prevent them from venturing anywhere close to the uncanny valley. However, even with their non-threatening appearances, there are barriers to their wide adoption.
For one, robotics technology has a very long way to go before it can come close to matching the capabilities of a human. Consider what the average home health aide may be required to do – planning and preparing meals, changing bedding and assisting with grooming and bathing, for starters. Now take a look at what ASIMO, which is billed by Honda as “The World’s Most Advanced Humanoid Robot,” has to offer. It can recognize faces, identify voices, turn while walking and climb and descend stairs. Impressive, but a long way from being able to provide anything resembling comprehensive care.
However, even if we did have robots that were capable of effectively cooking, cleaning and caring for an adult, there would be a larger hurdle to their adoption as caregivers – Even in Japan, where robots are widely accepted, elderly adults just plain prefer humans:
The country’s biggest robot maker Tmsuk created a life-like one-metre tall robot six years ago, but has struggled to find interested clients.
Costing a cool $100,000 (£62,000) a piece, a rental programme was scrapped recently because of “failing to meet demands of consumers” and putting off patients at hospitals.
“We want humans caring for us, not machines,” was one response.
Without a strong demand for robot caregivers, the market will move on to different applications for this technology.
Coping with rising numbers of elderly citizens and a lack of qualified caregivers will be one problem Japan will need to solve in the near future. Given the current state of technology, however, humanoid robots will not be a viable solution for many years to come.