As lifespans lengthen, the proportion of elderly in our populations is increasing, but how will they be supported? Social robotics may take over many tasks in aged-care facilities and the home, but what does it say about humanity when we leave the care of our most vulnerable to machines?

My story, The Robots Will See You Now, investigated the future of robotics in aged care, talking to the New Zealand and Korean scientists spearheading research into social robotics.

With a grant from the Aotearoa New Zealand Science Journalism Fund, I travelled to South Korea to visit the University of Auckland’s partner scientists and institutions, the Robot World expo showcasing the latest technologies, and to see how robots were used in healthcare and geriatric facilities in the country.

While researching the piece, I quickly realised that South Korea was only one part of the story, and a visit to Japan would add a valuable dimension to my reporting.

The Asia New Zealand Foundation grant turned out to be extremely valuable by allowing me to visit Tokyo for 10 days, hugely expanding my story.

In Japan, I attended an aged-care technology expo, interviewed the makers of a social robot used as an eldercare companion, spent time at a rest home that used more than 20 robots to care for its elderly residents, interviewed another rest home on its use of robots for dementia care patients, visited the National Museum of Emerging Science and Technology’s robot exhibit, and went to visit various robots in public use around the city, seeing how easily they fit into Japanese culture.

It was easy to see how robots fit into the daily lives of many Japanese. Robots might greet you at a restaurant, shopping mall, or mobile phone store, asking you questions about your visit and directing you to a location.

At the Home Care and Rehabilitation Expo, I met Palro, a tabletop companion robot, which is a popular device in rest homes in Japan.

Research shows that people tend to feel kindly towards robots (until they begin to resemble humans too much, which begins to creep us out – a rift called the “uncanny valley”).

Non-threatening and even funny, Palro recognised me, guessed my age and mood, and engaged in conversation with me about my omurice (omlete) preferences.

Although all this gave me an excellent grounding in the state of Japanese robotics in general, the most crucial added dimension to the story came from the rest home visit and interviews, allowing me to really understand what robotic advances in aged care would likely look like in practice. It offered a huge leap forward in my understanding of how robots will fit into not just aged care but also healthcare and our lives in general.

It also helped to dispel some of the questions and concerns that the story raised about “machines taking over the care of the elderly”, which is a dominant part of the robot discussion in New Zealand.

Our most robotically advanced rest home is Selwyn Village in Te Atatu, which was the University of Auckland’s rest home partner in its social robotics research. Some test devices, such as the robotic Paro seals, were so useful for calming upset dementia care patients that the rest home later purchased them itself.

However, Shintomi Rest Home in Tokyo is far ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to robotic eldercare, thanks in part to its robot-mad director.

Japan has a chronic shortage of workers. The Health Labor and Welfare Ministry of Japan estimates the country will need 2.53 million care workers by 2025, but there’s expected to be a significant shortfall, in the magnitude of several hundred thousand people.

Several years ago, the Japanese government offered subsidies to nursing homes to try to ease this problem, and Shintomi took advantage of that. The robots were so helpful that it bought its own.

Today, the rest home often hosts visitors from other countries, media, and institutions interested in its practices.

The robots and robotic devices include some that help staff (such as lifting, transfer, and carrying); some that monitor residents (such as sleep and restlessness); some that provide companionship and stimulation (companion robots, conversation robots, and robots that encourage activity); and some that provide physical assistance and rehabilitation, such as helping them learning to walk after a stroke or maintaining balance and hand-eye coordination. Shintomi employs a Chief of Robots to keep its robotic workforce updated and functional.

Combined with the information I gleaned in Korea and by comparing attitudes, robotic research and practices in New Zealand, the trip resulted in a well-informed, well-rounded story that was able to go beyond the scare headlines and look seriously at how robots will fit into aged care in New Zealand.

This article is republished with the permission of the Asia New Zealand Foundation. Image shows Paro, the robotic seal being demonstrated by rest home staff.

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