Brave Old World

Dec 29, 2008
*Special to asia!

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


paro robot


Paro robot is covered with soft artificial fur to make people feel comfortable, as if they are touching a real animal.


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.


Photo credit: PARO Therapeutic Robot


clarissa tanClarissa is a journalist who focuses on travel and the arts. As a desperately hopeful author, she writes short stories and is working on a novel. Clarissa won the Spectator’s final Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing.

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