The ‘soft side’ of robots and elderly care in Japan

As Japan‘s population shrinks, and its proportion of elderly rises, the nation continues to avoid increasing immigration. Rather than hire humans to provide care for the nation’s elderly, Japan’s political leaders look instead to a robotic revolution to provide that care.

Inventions such as Paro, a robotic seal that coos and purrs, provide Japan’s elderly with virtual companionship and help them cope with solitude. Apparently the ubiquitous pattern of kodokushi (solitary deaths) detailed in Anne Allison‘s Precarious Japan  is more manageable if Paro is with you. However, Paro does not yet seem to have the ability to call the neighbors or an ambulance, or to get an elderly person’s distant family to come visit.

Overall, the growth in care robots is a boon for the robotics industry. But would obaachan rather talk with a robotic seal or a real human being—even if that human being is a Filipina caregiver? Will Paro and other robots go out after work and spend money in local businesses? Or pay into the nation’s pension and health insurance systems? Investments in robotic technology might help Japan’s elderly live independently for longer, facilitating physical mobility and providing games for the elderly to play. But hiring humans to do this work provides opportunities for human connection and a greater circulation of income, as workers spend their earnings in the Japanese economy. Inevitably, those workers will need to come from outside Japan, unless Japan’s care robots start having robot children …

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