Hotel reception robots
The trend toward the use of mechanical helpers is already clearly visible in Japanese society today. Stores and restaurants in the Ginza shopping district in Tokyo are now using Pepper—an information robot that understands spoken words, has a monitor installed in its chest, and makes gestures when it speaks. Restaurant patrons can order using the screen; the robot delivers the orders when they’re ready. Guests at the “Strange Hotel,” which is not far from Inagaki’s restaurant in Chiba, never even see a human staff member: They deal solely with robots from check-in to check-out.
“Now we’re going to sing a song together. We’ll start on three. One, two...”
Pepper the robot
talks to residents at the Silver Wing retirement home and keeps them entertained with games
Those who wish to experience the latest stage of cooperation between machines and humans can go a few hundred meters to the east, to the Shintomi district, where the Silver Wing senior citizens home is located. The facility is taking part in a pilot project sponsored by the city of Tokyo: “Eliminating the caregiver shortage through the use of technology.”
In the day room on the eighth floor, Junko Fukumura is playing with Paro, an electronic seal with soft fur and long eyelashes. Fukumura is only three years older than the spry restaurant operator Inagaki, but she’s not doing nearly as well as Inagaki either physically or mentally. She is often restless and sometimes confused. “Paro is so cute, and that helps me spend a few hours feeling very happy,” Fukumura says. The seal stretches underneath her hand, turns its head to her, and starts making baby noises and fluttering its eyelashes. Fukumura smiles back at it. Two other residents at a neighboring table play with Aibo, a robot dog built by Sony.
The pleasure the residents take in interacting with the machines is genuine. “They spend a lot of time with the robots and their interaction re-energizes them,” says Koya Ishikawa, who established the facility. Ishikawa, an enterprising lawyer and entrepreneur, recognized at the beginning of the 21st century that care for senior citizens was going to become a huge growth market at some point. Since then he has established several homes for care and rehabilitation, and he now plans to play a leading role in the technological transformation of the industry. The beds in Ishikawa’s facilities are already equipped with sensors that register the govements ofseniors when they sleep. A computer issues a warning to staff members if a person is in danger of falling out of bed. Caregivers can also see on the computer how much deep sleep each of the elderly residents is getting. “Just one look at the monitor can explain why someone’s extremely tired and often nods off during the day,” says Ishikawa. Playing with Paro then helps seniors relax a little in the evening.
Retirement home residents follow the lead of the robot.
Retirement home residents follow the lead of the robot
Caregiver Takashi Sugimoto protects his hip with an exoskeleton while lifting a patient
Aibo, a robot dog, is no longer manufactured, but still has a lot of fans
Junko Fukumura often plays for hours with the robot seal Paro
Silver Wing uses many other robots as well. Staff members also wear exoskeletons to prevent hip damage when lifting patients, which is the biggest occupational hazard for caregivers. The omnipresent Pepper sings songs to the seniors in the day room on the eighth floor and instructs them to raise and stretch their arms in time with the music. Those who haven’t nodded off in their chairs happily join in with Pepper. On the floor below the common room, a robot is helping a stroke patient practice walking. The flat screen that serves as the robot’s head shows the patient how she should set down her foot—the machine is a mechanical physiotherapist.
This is the vision of the future shared by bureaucrats, technologists, and industry. Inagaki is horrified by all of this. “I know even without a computer whether or not I’ve slept well,” she says as she wipes down a table with disinfectant. Her last customers have left the restaurant and her husband is cleaning his worktops in the kitchen area with lots of water. “It would be very nice if a robot could help clean up here,” she admits—but to allow a machine to touch her body in a senior citizens home? She doesn’t trust machines enough for that: “I would let a robot take me to the bathroom if nobody else would, but it would not be an ideal situation.”
Inagaki took care of her own elderly mother for ten years. During that time, she had to hire someone to help out in the restaurant. “That was hard, but it was a point of honor for me to take care of my mother,” she explains.
“The machines have to be absolutely safe”
Robot expert at Meijo University in the central Japanese city of Nagoya