| Yuko Ohiro |
TOKYO (The Yomiuri Shimbun) – “Pepper, dear, when is the next time you’ll visit?”
“Look over here!”
In a third-floor lounge at Nishi-Koigakubo Ninjin Home, a special elderly nursing home in western Tokyo, elderly dementia patients recently spent time with Pepper, a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence being developed by SoftBank Mobile.
Said to be the world’s first robot designed to serve people by recognising their emotions, Pepper is set to retail for 198,000 yen (about US$1,680) on the consumer market in February.
With Japan facing a rising number of dementia sufferers, more businesses have begun to develop products and services to help patients and their families live more comfortably.
Such products and services benefit society and also are becoming an important industry, with companies now launching full-fledged efforts to enter the market.
SoftBank Mobile hopes to develop its robot to act as a conversation partner for those suffering from dementia.
During its visit that day, Pepper played a game and showed off its dancing skills, thanks to the installation of a prototype program.
Seeing the elderly residents smile as they chatted with Pepper, nursing home operator Harue Ishikawa expressed high hopes, saying, “Even with a manpower shortage in the nursing care field, we can provide a higher-quality service if such robots can take over some of the work.”
The number of people suffering from or at risk of dementia is estimated to have exceeded eight million in 2012, and the figure is expected to increase even more.
Meanwhile, the percentage of households comprising either a single person aged at least 65 or an elderly couple without younger family members is forecast to rise from 20 per cent in 2010 and reach 28 per cent in 2035.
There also are many senior citizens who live with younger family members but stay alone at home during the daytime while the others are at work.
Kaname Hayashi, who is involved in the development of Pepper at SoftBank, said, “We see a demand for products that will prompt communication and support everyday life by asking the elderly if they have taken their medication and other questions.”
To help prevent the condition of elderly patients from deteriorating to the point where they require nursing care, the firm hopes to give people more options than simply relying on efforts by the central and local governments.
The company plans to develop a program to provide better support for dementia patients, such as by adding a function to encourage the elderly to talk about their memories.
“Pepper, who is indefatigable, can always be there as a conversation partner,” Hayashi said.
In 2011, Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd chose dementia as a research subject. First, the laboratory staff accompanied dementia patients and their families living in Tokyo on trips to pick mandarin oranges and visit hot springs, aiming to study the kinds of difficulties such people face in their daily lives.
“Products designed for people with dementia should be easy enough for anyone to use,” said Makoto Okada, the lab’s project leader. “(The study) will enhance the value of our products and services.”
PaPeRo, a communication robot developed by NEC Corp and others, is already taking an active role at such places as nursing care facilities.
The company hopes to make it available to the average consumer for less than 20,000 yen (about US$170) a month.
“The use of products specially developed for dementia patients has been limited to such places as nursing homes,” the company said. “But we believe that they will be soon spreading to ordinary households.”
Kao Corp, which makes daily necessities, set up a special internal team in March 2014 and began research on the disease.
“Various companies have taken an interest in dementia in the last few years, and we’ve been receiving more inquiries,” said Takenobu Inoue, director of the Assistive Technology Department at the Research Institute of the National Rehabilitation Centre for Persons with Disabilities.
“If well-known makers start to sell products and services that are dementia-friendly, it could play a major role in disease prevention. We’re willing to cooperate with companies that can disseminate information.”