With a demographic cliff closer than ever, Japan has its eye on robotics

An aging population has prompted Japan to look more seriously at robots in the workplace, write Adam Walsh and Philippe Grenier.

An aging population has prompted Japan to look more seriously at robots in the workplace

Engineer Motoki Nakano shows off a prototype for an exoskeleton at Atoun headquarters in Nara, Japan. (Philippe Grenier/Radio-Canada)

You can hear a low electronic buzz as Kenjii Takemura unloads box after box in the port of Osaka. The 60-year-old labourer is wearing an electronic harness that is meant to literally take a load off.

"I'm going to retire in five years time and this machine will permit me to stay on the job until then," he said.

It's just one example of how business in Japan is trying to adapt as the country edges ever so much closer to a demographic cliff.

Project manager Kouichi Ikeda shows off Toyota's Human Support Robot. (Philippe Grenier/Radio-Canada)

The world's third-largest economy has a population of around 125 million people. According to Japanese government data, more than a quarter of that population is already 65 or older — and that number is expected to skyrocket to 40 percent by the year 2060.

Cutting the load in half

It's a chilly mid-winter morning in Osaka and you can see Takemura's breath as he dutifully loads 20-kilogram boxes into a shipping container. He says his electronic harness cuts the weight of each box he's lifting in half.

Overseeing the demonstration is Tatshumi Shokai company director Y. Enomoto. He says people were getting injured because of the day-to-day grind of manual labour but the harnesses have meant fewer injuries and the company wants to build on that.

"The head of our maritime transport company is already thinking about the future. He wants devices that also help people's arms with lifting," he said.

The electronic harnesses were designed by engineers at the headquarters of Atoun in Nara. Their view of the future is like something out of a sci-fi movie, minus the aliens.

The Japanese port of Osaka, as seen from the wharf of Tatsumi Shokai Co. (Philippe Grenier/Radio-Canada)

Inside their laboratory, engineer Motoki Nakano straps himself into their prototype exoskeleton suit. Within a few minutes he's controlling the big robotic arms that respond to his hand movements. When Nakano's feet move, so too do the feet of his exoskeleton. The idea behind the big, metallic suit is that it will be used on job sites.

"The developer hopes a version of this will be lifting pipes and heavy materials within 3-to-5 years," said Nakano.

Adult diapers outsell baby ones

Headlines coming out of Japan over the last few years say there are more adult diapers being sold here than baby ones. The greying population coupled with a labour shortage means there's also room for robotics at care facilities.

In Japan, estimates are that by year 2025 1 in five seniors will have dementia. On the outskirts of Tokyo, a care home for patients with dementia also serves as a testing ground for robotic help.

Y. Enomoto is director of the Tatshumi Shokai maritime transport company. (Philippe Grenier/Radio-Canada )

A Toyota developer uses a tablet to direct a Human Support Robot (HSR) to look at a bottle on the floor and then pick it up. The HSR is something residents at the home could use for performing simple tasks.

"We often hear about the shortage of labour in nursing care facilities for the elderly. This robot can supplement the shortage of labour,"said project manager, Kouichi Ikeda.

He says Toyota is testing its Human Support Robots to get feedback for design and capability changes.

'They can play a key role'

Part of that feedback comes from facility director Hideki Takubo. He suggested giving the robot a voice so it wouldn't surprise people when it visits their rooms. Takubo feels in the care home industry, robots can serve as good assistants.

"We shouldn't think that robots will replace us but they can play a key role in providing care," he said.

It can talk, it can sing, it can dance: Fujisoft's PALRO robot struts its stuff. (Philippe Grenier/Radio-Canada)

A world away in Newfoundland, the demographic issues are similar. The province is the fastest aging in Canada and has woken up to the need to adjust to that fact.

But will Japan's robots and electronic assist devices make their way over?

This summer Toyota will test its Human Support Robot at an international competition in Montreal.

With some more tweaks and feedback from prospective clients here in Japan, who knows, it could be something people start seeing in care homes in Canada before too long.

This report received assistance from the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. 

About the Author

By Adam Walsh and Philippe Grenier

Adam Walsh is a CBC Newfoundland and Labrador journalist working in Tokyo on a secondment to NHK, Japan's public broadcaster. Phillipe Grenier is a Radio-Canada videojournalist formerly stationed in St. John's, and now working in Tokyo.