July 21, 2005

Call me HAL: Japan looks to robots for elderly care

By Masayuki Kitano

TOKYO (Reuters) - They won't be leaping tall buildings in a
single bound, but Japan's growing number of elderly may someday
have a new lease on life that allows them to care for
themselves -- and maybe even pump a little iron.

As the country's population ages rapidly and its workforce
shrinks, care workers may be hard to come by, so researchers
are trying to develop the ultimate personal care givers:

"Unlike the United States or Europe, Japan is reluctant to
allow in cheap foreign laborers," said Takashi Gomi, president
of Canada-based Applied AI Systems Inc., whose company has
developed a prototype of an "intelligent" wheelchair that can
move around on its own and sense obstacles to avoid them.

"I don't think this will change easily in the next 20 to 30
years, so robots are about the only solution," said Gomi, a
Canadian researcher born in Japan.

Right now, most robots are used in factories. But many
Japanese researchers have begun developing mechanical helpers
for use in homes, offices, hospitals and nursing facilities.

Turning to robots makes economic sense.

A government report said in May that annual demand for
non-factory "service robots" may reach 1.1 trillion yen (9.75
billion) in 2015, when one in four Japanese is expected to be
65 or older.

Yoshiyuki Sankai is among those who see robots as the
future of elderly health care.

A researcher at Japan's University of Tsukuba, Sankai has
developed a robotic suit designed to make it easier for elderly
people with weak muscles to move around or for care-givers to
lift them.

The sleek, high-tech get-up looks like a white suit of
armor. It straps onto a person's arms, legs and back and is
equipped with a computer, motors and sensors that detect
electric nerve signals transmitted from the brain when a person
tries to move his limbs.

When the sensors detect the nerve signals, the computer
starts up the relevant motors to assist the person's motions.

Sankai says the suit, dubbed "Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL)
5," can let a person who can barely do an 176-pound leg press
handle 397 pounds.

"The big goal is to expand or strengthen the physical
capability of humans," said Sankai, who set up a venture firm
last year to market the robot suit and plans to start leasing
HAL-5 to the elderly and disabled in Japan this year.


Japan may face a shortage of young workers but it has an
abundance of robots.

It was home to 44 percent of the nearly 801,000 industrial
robots around the world at the end of 2003.

Although the market for "rehabilitation robots" -- those
aimed at assisting the elderly or disabled -- is still in its
infancy, they are gradually coming into use.

Yaskawa Electric Corp., a leading industrial robot maker,
has been selling a rehabilitation robot since 2000, says
Hidenori Tomisaki, a manager at Yaskawa's medical and assistive
technology group.

Its bedside robot assists the physical therapy of patients
recovering from strokes or artificial knee replacement surgery,
helping them move their legs with its mechanical arm.

"Some patients become worried or feel pain unless such
exercises are conducted at a consistent speed," Tomisaki said.

Demand, however, has been limited, due partly to the cost.

The newest version, TEM LX2, is priced around 3.8 million
yen, or well over $30,000. Only five to six units have been
sold per year since 2003.


Costs may eventually come down. Developing robots that
react to people's whims is another matter.

Robot gurus at Tohoku University and Nomura Unison Co. Ltd,
an industrial machinery maker, say the key is to equip robots
with the ability to detect intent or action.

That's what they had in mind when developing a "Partner
Ballroom Dance Robot" that can dance a waltz.

The 5-foot-5-inch, 220-pound robot looks like a woman in a
dress and can execute five types of dance steps to match the
moves of a human dance partner.

It accomplishes this with a sensor that detects the force
being applied to it by the human dancer and gauging how the
person wants to dance based on such signals.

"We think that in the future, this technology can be
applied to various areas including helping care for the elderly
... and for cooperation between humans and robots," said Minoru
Nomura, president of Nomura Unison.

Naoki Tanaka, managing director of Network Center for Human
Service Association, a non-profit network of groups involved in
elderly care, says some of the people he works with may even
prefer robots to humans when it comes to their care.

"There are people who say they would rather have a robot
help them take a bath than rely on help from another person,"
he said.