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Technology Extends Capabilities of Older Japanese



(p. A1) TOKYO--At an office-building construction site in the center of Japan's capital, 67-year-old Kenichi Saito effortlessly stacks 44-pound boards with the ease of a man half his age.

His secret: a bendable exoskeleton hugging his waist and thighs, with sensors attached to his skin. The sensors detect when Mr. Saito's muscles start to move and direct the machine to support his motion, cutting his load's effective weight by 18 pounds.

"I can carry as much as I did 10 years ago," says the hard-hatted Mr. Saito.

Mr. Saito is part of an experiment by Obayashi Corp. , the construction giant handling the building project, to confront one of the biggest problems facing the company and the country: a chronic labor shortage resulting from a rapidly aging population. The exoskeleton has allowed Mr. Saito to extend his working life--and Obayashi to keep building.


. . .


(p. A14) The Fujisawa Aikoen nursing home about an hour outside Tokyo started leasing the "hybrid assistive limb," or HAL, exoskeletons from maker Cyberdyne Inc. in June.

In Hokkaido, 60-year-old potato-pickers use rubber "smart suits" making it easier to bend over. Baggage handlers at Tokyo's Haneda airport employ similar assistance.

In cases where older people simply can't do the job or aren't available, Japanese manufacturers are turning to robots, which help them keep costs down and continue growing.

Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ, Japan's largest bank, employs a small robot speaking 19 languages to greet customers, while a Nagasaki hotel staffed mainly by robots opened in July. Komatsu Ltd. is developing self-driving vehicles for construction sites, while industrial robot maker Fanuc Corp. is designing machines that repair each other.

Toyota Motor Corp. is testing in homes its "human support robot," a videophone/remote-controlled android that allows family and friends to perform tasks for distant elderly people as if they were in the same home. In one demonstration, a young man uses a tablet to look around a bed-bound older man's room, then directs the robot to open the curtains and bring the older man a drink.

SoftBank Group Corp. earlier this year drew global attention when it put on sale in Japan an automaton called Pepper, which it called the world's first robot capable of understanding emotions. One of the earliest uses for the 4-foot-tall white humanoid is as a nursing helper.

In a Kanagawa Prefecture test, Pepper entertained a room of 30 80- to 90-year-olds for 40 minutes. He led them in light exercises and tested their ability to recognize colors and letters. Women patted his head like a grandchild.

Showing a video of Pepper with a dementia patient on another occasion, Shunji Iyama, one of the developers, says the robot may sometimes work better than people. "That man keeps repeating himself over and over again," Mr. Iyama said. "If Pepper were human, he'd get fed up, but he just repeats the same reaction and doesn't get tired."



For the full story, see:

Jacob M. Schlesinger and Alexander Martin. "Graying Japan Tries to Embrace the Golden Years." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Nov. 30, 2015): A1 & A14.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 29, 2015, and has the title "Graying Japan Tries to Embrace the Golden Years.")






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