Japan continues to face an aging population. What can technology do to help people continue to work as long and as safely as they can? One piece of the puzzle is the application of robot technology, a highly-anticipated field that is no longer the stuff of science fiction. Even today, in fact, the field of robotics is helping to support all of our lifestyles.
According to NEDO (the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization), the market for robots in Japan totaled 1.6 trillion yen in 2015. By 2035, this is predicted to grow to 9.7 trillion yen, with most of the anticipated growth expected in the robot-related service industry (4.9 trillion yen).
State-of-the-art robots: Sensing people’s wishes, working in tandem with their bodies
The HAL® robot suit from Cyberdyne is perhaps the most representative example of this trend. The world’s first cyborg-type robot, HAL improves, supports, expands, and revitalizes the functions of its wearer’s body.
When a person tries to move their body, signals are sent from the brain to the relevant muscles through the nervous system. HAL’s sensors detect the weak bioelectric currents generated by this process, using the signals to drive its power unit and provide the motion the user wishes to make. Since these bioelectric signals are picked up from the surface of the skin, HAL can provide support even for users whose bodies are paralyzed.
Up to now, the largest use for robots has been to replace human workers. However, there remain many areas where a person’s flexible decision-making capabilities cannot be fully mechanized (roboticized). The so-called hybrid concept—where human and robot work together as one—is attracting particular attention in the field of caring for the elderly and in welfare.
Robotic applications in disaster rescue and logistics
Ideas for the application of robot suits have appeared in unexpected places. For example, HAL has already been of great assistance in the fields of disaster rescue and support. After the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, HAL technology was modified for use in work at a power plant in order to minimize exposure to radiation for workers at the Fukushima accident site. The robot technology helped to greatly reduce the burden on workers when wearing heavy radiation-shielding jackets, which can weigh nearly 60 kg.
At Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, the HAL® for labor support (lumbar support) plays a major role in tasks involving heavy loads, such as unloading large cargo. The contribution robots can make now goes far beyond things like cleaning floors or hauling cargo. We are on the cusp of seeing the next generation of airports, one where robots provide support in all types of work.
In the field of finance, companies have to handle a large amount of bills and coinage, which makes the task of transporting these difficult. Companies such as Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation and Joyo Bank employ workers equipped with robot suits to carry heavy loads and reduce the physical labor required.
“It’s already come this far”— Robotics’ cutting-edge performance in medicine
Meanwhile, the HAL® for medical use (lower limb type) has already been approved for medical use in both Japan and Europe. Other configurations, which can be worn on the elbows or legs, make it possible to perform physical therapy while sitting in bed. The bioelectric signals generated when the human body tries to move are fed back to the brain once the movement takes place. As a result, using HAL speeds up physical training for the brain, nervous system, and muscular system.
The adaption of robotics is also widely expected to help expand elemental technologies. Future advances in how bioelectric signals are processed may allow for new applications such as measuring brain waves or electrocardiograms while wearing a hat or clothing, or searching for symptoms of dehydration from a patient’s fingertip. Dehydration is one risk factor for the formation of blood clots — a potential life-and-death issue that can lead to a stroke or heart attack.
The core technology behind HAL is thus uniquely suited for circulatory diseases (heart disease, vascular diseases, high blood pressure, etc.) and holds the potential to play a major role in health-data management. HAL’s network support also allows it to collect a vast amount of data, just like other IoT devices. The resulting big-data benefit is another potential future area of exploration.
“Intelligent robots” to create further automation in manufacturing
After the service industry, the manufacturing sector holds the second-largest share of the robot market (an estimated 2.7 trillion yen in 2035). MUJIN, a company that develops controllers for manufacturing robots, has produced dramatic workplace efficiency and cost improvement by improving the intelligence of existing robots.
Previous manufacturing robots were only able to repeat the movements taught to them by human guides. Even a small change in the manufacturing process required a new teaching process from scratch. To address this, MUJIN’s intelligence technology quickly processes a number of complex controls at once, streamlining robot-based automation on the floor.
What does the term “robot venture” conjure in your mind? There is nothing unrealistic about the idea. Right now, development work is underway for technology that can help out people in practical, palpable ways. As Japan’s population continues to age rapidly, robot technology will be an indispensable tool as the nation deepens efforts to secure a stable workforce, automate lines, and improve productivity by introducing night shifts.
We will live in a world where robots freely interact with us, performing work on the level of human beings. It may not be long before the world is shared between humans and “thinking” robots.
Katsutoshi Dobashi, Technology Writer
Born in 1986. Turned freelance in 2013 after stints working for a large brokerage and being associate editor-in-chief of a business magazine. Contributes to Forbes JAPAN and other outlets, focusing on Western startups. In August 2015, he was chosen by the Estonian government to serve as the Japanese representative for their young journalist invitational program (25 people from 25 countries).