Paro the furry seal cries softly while an elderly woman pets it. Pepper, a humanoid, waves while leading a group of senior citizens in exercises. The upright Tree guides a disabled man taking shaky steps, saying in a gentle feminine voice, “right, left, well done!”
Allowing robots to help care for the elderly – a job typically seen as requiring a human touch – may be a jarring idea in the West. But many Japanese see them positively, largely because they are depicted in popular media as friendly and helpful.
“These robots are wonderful,” said 84-year-old Kazuko Yamada after the exercise session with SoftBank Robotics Corp’s Pepper, which can carry on scripted dialogues. “More people live alone these days, and a robot can be a conversation partner for them. It will make life more fun.”
Plenty of obstacles may hinder a rapid proliferation of elder care robots: high costs, safety issues and doubts about how useful – and user-friendly – they will be.
The Japanese government has been funding development of elder care robots to help fill a projected shortfall of 380,000 specialized workers by 2025.
Despite steps by Japan to allow foreign workers in for elder care, obstacles to employment in the sector, including exams in Japanese, remain. As of the end of 2017, only 18 foreigners held nursing care visas, a new category created in 2016.
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