Robotic Nurses To Serve Aging Population’s Long-Term Care Needs

When it was founded in 1926, Toyoda Automatic Loom Works (as it was then known) manufactured automatic fabric looms that could detect problems and shut down automatically. It marketed these revolutionary devices as having automation with human intelligence. 

Today the company is looking ahead at the second half of this century.  Executives note they see a mounting health care crisis that will impact the aging populations of Japan and the United States. It sees a future where manufacturing robotic workers is the hot new industry.  They note the first place we might see these robots is in hospitals. 

Japan’s aging population and low birthrate point to a looming shortage of workers, and Japan’s elder care facilities and hospitals are already competing for nurses. This fact has not escaped Toyota, which runs Toyota Memorial Hospital in Toyota City, Japan. Taking a lead from Honda, Toyota in 2004 announced plans to build “Toyota Partner Robots” and begin selling them in 2010 after extensive field trials at Toyota Memorial. 

Toyota doesn’t see these machines serving only as nurses. They’re also being designed to provide help around the house and do work at the factory. But it’s the idea of robotic nurses that drew support when Japan’s Machine Industry Memorial Foundation estimated Japan could save 2.1 trillion yen (about $21 billion) in health care costs each year using robots to monitor the nation’s elderly.

Experts note that this is more than some futuristic fantasy.  ”There will be a growing need for long-term care in the United States as 76 million baby boomers reach old age,” explains Jesse Slome, executive director of the American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance.  “There will be a huge demand for care and a shortage of caregivers.”

Japan leads the world in building robots, and the bots show remarkable skill. Honda’s famous android, Asimo, has served tea, conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  Toyota’s robots have even played the violin and the trumpet. 

Honda has spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing its human-like robots, and Toyota has 200 people working on the project full-time. To put that in perspective, it might assign 500 engineers to developing a new car platform. Toyota also is working with at least 10 corporate suppliers and 11 universities.

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