Brave old world

Robots straight out of Star Wars are helping the elderly in Japan go about their daily activities.

Japan, land of anime, kinky vending machines and intelligent toilets, is using robots to help its elderly. The robots come in all shapes and sizes – humanoid figures, mechanical jackets, furry seals – and do everything from keeping the aged company to helping them harvest radishes. The Great Robot Exhibition held recently in Tokyo drew huge, admiring crowds. Japan is facing what demographers call a "super-aging" population, with a sharply decreasing number of workers to support retirees, and is looking to technology for help.

The Paro robot, for example, looks like a baby harp seal and reacts to being called and cuddled. Covered in soft artificial fur, it was made to be a companion to the elderly, and has been named the "World’s Most Therapeutic Robot" by the Guinness Book of World Records. Tests carried out among senior citizens show that the Paro provides healing effects and can ease depression and stress. It was designed by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.

Honda’s famous Asimo, which looks like a Star Wars Imperial Storm Trooper (but friendlier), dances, serves tea and no doubt very soon will give back rubs.

Other corporations have designed robots to feed the sick and aged, wheel them to the grocery store and alert doctors if prescribed medication has not been taken.

Not all robots are created to ensure the elderly have a leisurely ride though. The Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology has invented a mechanized suit that older farmers can wear, to help them perform tasks such as carrying sacks of rice or harvesting radishes. The suit has eight motors and a resin framework to aid them as they work.

The use of robots has brought some criticism. Sociologists and economists point out robots aren’t a proper substitute for a better public healthcare system. The robots are also expensive – a Paro, for example, costs about ¥350,000 (US$3,275).

Japan’s government could welcome more immigrants. Or it could persuade its population to have more babies.

For if there's one thing robots can't do, it's give birth. At least not yet. 



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clarissa tanClarissa Tan is a writer based in Singapore. She is the final winner of the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing, awarded by the UK's Spectator magazine. Besides being a contributing editor for asia!, Tan also writes art and book reviews for the Business Times, and is currently working on her first novel.

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