With a rapidly ageing population, Japan is increasingly looking to robots and artificial intelligence (AI) to help caregivers in nursing homes take care of elderly people.
For years now, developers in the already high-tech country have been working on simple robots to help caregivers grant the elderly the assistance they need. Now the world's third-largest economy wants to expand the range of possible applications for robots and AI.
"The market is growing, we see increasing interest," says Aiko Takigawa, a manager at Medtec, Asia's largest trade show for medical devices and care robots, which began in Tokyo. The focus this year is not on two-legged humanoid helpers, but on high-tech solutions like AI for the entire medical sector. Japan's society is ageing at such a rate that it has already led to labour shortages.
One such sector is nursing and care of the elderly. According to recent estimates by the government in Tokyo, this sector will have a shortage of around 370,000 workers by 2025.
Although Japan wants to attract more foreigner workers into the country, experts say such a measure is far from sufficient. Japan's ageing population requires more investment in technologies such as artificial intelligence and robots, according to a recent government report.
One such robot to have proven the power of technology to help caregivers is a furry baby seal called Paro which is designed to help treat diseases like Alzheimer's.
The robot contains sensors that allow it to perceive what is happening in its surroundings, to recognise light and to know where a voice is coming from.
This means it can look at the person talking to it, while also making whining noises and sucking a dummy. The robot, which costs about US$5,600 (RM22,700), has been in use since 2003 in more than 30 countries, including Japan, Denmark and the United States.
Japanese inventor Takanori Shibata says that research on people with Alzheimer's or similar diseases has shown that the company of Paro can reduce depression, anxiety and loneliness. "People with dementia tend to have behavioural problems ... but the interaction with Nuka can suppress such negative behaviours (as) agitation, depression, wandering, walking around," he adds.
Japan is now looking to expand on this model, and it helps that the country is already the largest producer of industrial robots in the world.
The market for robots in Japan's service sector is expected to grow to US$44bil (RM178bil), according to estimates by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organisation, a state-supported think tank.
And yet in terms of the number of robot manufacturers for the service sector, the country is lagging behind the US and Germany, according to the leading Japanese business newspaper Nikkei. – dpa