The world’s demography is changing dramatically. We live longer and longer! Japan is at the forefront of these changes. By 2050, according to the United Nations, more than one in five adults will be over 60 years old. Five percent of the population will be over 80 years old. With more than 25 percent of its population aged 65 or more, Japan is already a super-aged country. Japan is a societal and innovation laboratory for what will happen in the course of the next 10 to 20 years in most of the western societies.
Super-aging countries carry lots of challenges such as the burdens for the healthcare or pensions systems. They also bring a significant number of new business opportunities. It is especially true in countries as technologically advanced as Japan. Technology and innovation are critical components to address the needs of the elderly and age-related diseases successfully.
Silver Economy as a business opportunity
Older adults are part of the so-called silver economy. This population is not outside of the consumers’ market. It represents a new market segment with specific needs. In the future, aged customers will be more and more involved in supporting economic growth. So much that in Japan and Korea, those aged 75 and older will contribute to 40% of the consumption growth. By 2020, studies show that older adults will spend $15 trillion annually. Silver economy members have particular attributes that make them a very valuable economic target. Compared to younger generations, older people seek quality and are ready to pay more. They are far less price sensitive than younger generations.
Convenience stores, or Kombinis, are everywhere in Japan. In these shops, people can buy food, pay their bills, post their letters. It is even possible to eat or drink a coffee while reading a magazine. Some shops also offer dry-cleaning services. Three major chains, Seven Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson, rule over the 50,000 shops market. Aged customers are for them an opportunity. These shops are evolving to satisfy the elders’ needs. The Japanese Urban Renaissance Agency, a semi-public housing agency, signed an agreement with the main convenience store operators. It allows them to open their shops directly within some of the 1,700 buildings they manage in the Kansai area. These stores, of course, offer easy access to food and commodities specially selected to suit the needs of the seniors. They also act as a link between generation. They offer sitting and chatting areas but also entertainments, such as Karaoke for seniors. The shops also deliver the groceries for free. Minor maintenance problems in the flats can also be handled by the convenience store staff.
Robots as the new caregivers
New disruptive innovations and robots are now appearing to promote social connectivity. They help slow down cognitive decline and assist in physical training. In Japan, there is a shortage of caregivers for the elderly. This situation is now a political and societal issue. The recently approved so-called “blue-collar” foreign workers visa has been sharply criticized. Robots could be a solution, and they are already in elder-care homes. This is just the beginning as the care-bot market should reach $3.7 billion by 2035.
Aibo, the pet dog robot developed by Sony, and Paro, the robotic baby-seal are just the more famous examples. Numerous robots are used to stimulate and interact with the elderly. Paro is now present in more than 30 countries. It encourages the patients who have dementia to maintain some form of social engagement. Softbank famous humanoid Robots Pepper also assists in exercise routines. More than 500 Japanese elder care homes use Pepper for one task or another.
The Japanese government and the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, METI, contributed to the development of elder care robots. They could become both a solution to the shortage of 380,000 specialized workers by 2025 and a potential very lucrative export industry. Innovative products are already present in hospitals and care homes. Developed by the RIKEN Center for Human-Interactive Robot Research and Sumitomo Riko Company, Robear is another example of what collaborative nursing robots could be. The cute looking bear robot help lifting the patients.
We can predict that Psychological resistance and costs will gradually decrease. Care robots will soon be widely used. The idea is not to replace the human staff. The goal is for the robots to assist the humans.
Fighting loneliness with technology
Loneliness is already a major issue for Japanese elderlies. Kodokushi or lonely deaths are on the rise. In Japan, social ties are mainly built in the workplace. Once retired, lots of former salarymen will lose most of their social life. They will then quickly become isolated. The disaggregation of the traditional family structure also partly explains that more than 30,000 Japanese die alone every year. Some companies even specialize in the business of cleaning the flat where lonely people died. Studies suggest that Loneliness and social isolation are aggravating factors for cognitive decline and dementia. Telepresence or social robots are a way to limit the consequences of the evolution of Japanese society. Pet robots can be as effective as real pets to fight loneliness. Sometimes, a special bond will appear between the robot and its owner. In some extreme cases, Funerals are even held for broken robots. Telepresence robots could also look after their owners. They will become mechanical guardian angels and look after their owners. In case of fall of health issue, emergency services will be called automatically. Japan is entering the age of Telemedicine. Telepresence robots are just a component of this silver revolution.
The Tokyo based company Telexistence goes one step further. Introduced in 1980 by Pr Susumu Tachi, the Chairman of company, Telexistence refers to the concept of using a robot to be in a place different to the one you actually are. Basically, it is a little bit like receiving the ubiquitous gift. Some Telepresence robots already allow you to let a robot attend an event when you are in a different place. This could be especially interesting for the elderly who are physically diminished and cannot move easily. The model H developed by this company goes one step further as the robot can interact with the distant environment and send visual, auditory and sensory feedbacks to the user. A Virtual Reality headset is used to completely immerge the user in the environment where the robot is evolving in. Telexistence could somehow be a double-edge sword. For elderly people, it will become a way to expand their world and bring them back a relative freedom of movement. For the numerous Japanese who suffer from extreme isolation and fear to interact with world, Hikikomori, it will then become a way to isolate themselves even more.
These social silver economy robots are just a substitute of course. They will not replace human interactions anytime soon. In 2040, 40 percent of the population will be living alone. After all, a virtual companion may be better than no companion at all. Future only will tell.