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Japan hopes to fill shortfall of specialized workers by 2025
TOKYO - Paro the furry seal cries softly while an elderly woman pets it. Pepper, a humanoid, waves while leading a group of senior citizens in exercises. The upright Tree guides a disabled man taking shaky steps, saying in a gentle feminine voice, "right, left, well done!"
Robots have the run of Tokyo"s Shin-tomi nursing home, which uses 20 different models to care for its residents. The Japanese government hopes it will be a model for harnessing the country"s robotics expertise to help cope with a swelling elderly population and dwindling workforce.
Allowing robots to help care for the elderly - a job typically seen as requiring a human touch - may be a jarring idea in the West. But many Japanese see them positively, largely because they are depicted in popular media as friendly and helpful.
"These robots are wonderful," said 84-year-old Kazuko Yamada after the exercise session with SoftBank Robotics Corp"s Pepper, which can carry on scripted dialogues. "More people live alone these days, and a robot can be a conversation partner for them. It will make life more fun."
Plenty of obstacles may hinder a rapid proliferation of elder care robots: High costs, safety issues and doubts about how useful - and user-friendly - they will be.
The Japanese government has been funding development of elder care robots to help fill a projected shortfall of 380,000 specialized workers by 2025.
Despite steps by Japan to allow foreign workers in for elder care, obstacles to employment in the sector, including exams in Japanese, remain. As of the end of 2017, only 18 foreigners held nursing care visas, a new category created in 2016.
But authorities and companies here are also eyeing a larger prize: A potentially lucrative export industry supplying robots to places such as Germany, China and Italy, which face similar demographic challenges now or in the near future.
"It"s an opportunity for us," said Atsushi Yasuda, director of the robotic policy office at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry or METI. "Other countries will follow the same trend."
More than 100 foreign groups have visited Shin-tomi the past year from countries including China, South Korea and the Netherlands.
A few products are trickling out as exports: Panasonic Corp has started shipping its robotic bed, which transforms into a wheelchair, to China"s Taiwan. Paro is used as a "therapy animal" in about 400 Danish senior homes.