Faced with a demographic situation even more dire than the one in the United States, firms in Japan are leading the way in developing robotic solutions to a caregiver shortage — with an eye on cornering the market in the years to come.
The overall worldwide market for robotic assistants used in nursing homes and other care settings sat at just $19.2 million in 2016, according to a new report from Reuters, with the majority of those dollars generated by Japan-based manufacturers.
But the nation’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) estimates that number will balloon to $3.8 billion by 2035, a year in which Japanese citizens aged 65 and older are set to represent a third of the overall population.
“It’s an opportunity for us,” Atsushi Yasuda, who serves as director of METI’s robotic policy office. “Other countries will follow the same trend.”
The graying Japanese population has created problems that would sound familiar to skilled nursing operators in the United States, with too many residents and not enough younger people to care for them. The country also has its own unique set of barriers, as Reuters points out: A foreign visa program for care workers created in 2016 has so far generated just 18 immigrants.
In addition, the overall population is rapidly shrinking from 126.8 million in 2017 to a projected 50.6 million in 2115, according to a recent report from the Japan Times — and elder care could eventually represent 25% of Japan’s labor force as soon as the 2050s.
That puts the country on the forefront of using robotic assistants to supplement human caregivers, including Pepper from SoftBank Robotics Corp. — an anthropomorphic robot that can lead group exercises — and Paro, a seal that its makers call “the world’s most therapeutic robot.”
As a result, representatives from other countries staring down similar demographic headaches — including Italy, Germany, and China — have traveled to Japan to look for insights, Reuters reported. And it’s often a hot topic of discussion stateside, where analysts estimate that a whopping 2.5 million more long-term caregivers will be needed by 2030 and 44% of all health care jobs remain unfilled.
Paro has seen use in the United States and elsewhere, and Reuters notes that Panasonic has exported a type of robotic bed to more 400 care homes in Denmark. But even the biggest cheerleaders for the development of artificially intelligent care machinery admit that the products are early in their evolution.
At the Shin-tomi nursing home in Tokyo, employees use 20 different types of robots with the support of the Japanese government, but officials there told Reuters that the tech hasn’t translated to firm results just yet: So far, its operators haven’t saved any money or cut any human’s working hours as a result of its robotic experiments.
“We haven’t gotten that far yet,” Kimiya Ishikawa, president of the home’s operating company, told the news service. “We brought them in mostly to improve the working environment, keep staffers from getting back injuries, and make things safer.”
Written by Alex Spanko