The Future of Robotics in Japan: Are Robots Ready to Replace Humans?

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Robotics in Japan has been a key industry for many years, developing new technologies and new ways to use them. The term “robotics” might bring to mind either industrial robots working on assembly lines or humanoid robots made to mimic people, but there are many other types of robots being put to numerous different uses. And as Japan ramps up its investments in science and technology, there will be an increasing number of these robots out in the world.

The global robotics market is an immense one, growing by billions of dollars every year. Nearly half of this growth comes from APAC, and while the majority of the market is currently devoted to industrial robotics, there is a growing demand for robots in the service industry as well. The market for service robots in APAC in particular is expanding rapidly, with Japan being one of the key leading countries. This is being driven by the Japanese government’s increasing focus on robotics and how they can improve both quality of life and the state of the environment.

Japan’s Society 5.0 plan aims to use advanced technologies such as AI, robotics, big data analytics, and the Internet of Things (IoT) to create an optimized, sustainable world. It will help deal with challenges such as the country’s aging population, healthcare accessibility, energy constraints, and the environment, while providing ultra-convenient services such as complete customization of consumer products and rapid drone deliveries. In order to facilitate this plan, the Japanese government increased its budget for science and technology by more than half a trillion yen (around $5 billion) between 2017 and 2019, boosting investment in research and development of digital technologies.

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How robotics in Japan are improving quality of life

Japan’s aging population is a major concern for the country. Currently more than a quarter of Japanese people are 65 or older, and that number is expected to rise to 40% in 2050. The country is therefore looking eagerly for ways to supplement its workforce with robots and other technology. Elder care is one of the areas experimenting with robotics in Japan for both its workers and patients.

There are many different ways that robotics are being used in elder care. Panasonic has developed a robotic bed that turns into a wheelchair, making it much easier to move patients safely. This saves nursing staff from having to lift patients in and out of bed, reducing risk of injury and making the process easier. Another development to help caregivers with this type of task is robotic equipment from Cyberdyne – the company makes devices that can be worn to help reduce stress when bending and lifting people. It also provides devices that can help build strength and regain mobility in individuals who have difficulty standing and walking.

But mobility and transportation aren’t the only ways robots are helping patients and people in nursing homes: they are also used to provide companionship and therapy. Sony offers robot dogs and other animals, and robot seal Paro is designed as a therapeutic tool that is soft, cute, and responds to touch and sound. For individuals living in a nursing home who many not have much interaction with other people, robots like this can improve their quality of life.

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Robotics in Japan can also be found in the service industry in places like cafes and hotels, though with somewhat mixed success. Japan’s all-robot hotel Henn-na “laid off” half of its staff in 2019 because they weren’t living up to expectations. Some robots were unable to answer guest questions the way digital assistants such as Siri and Alexa can, while others failed to perform some of the physical tasks required of them, needing humans to step in and help out. While a fascinating experiment, it seems that technology isn’t quite up to running a fully automated hotel just yet.

The Henn-na robots aren’t the only ones having trouble keeping down a job. Pepper, a 4-foot talking robot by SoftBank, can perform functions such as greeting people, answering questions, and providing entertainment. It’s been used in places such as stores, museums, hospitals, and airports. However, Pepper is sometimes too limited in its abilities and has been let go in the past because of that.

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Setbacks and failures aren’t stopping anyone, though, and robot manufacturers are still working to develop and improve service industry robots. SoftBank, for example, recently opened the Pepper PARLOR, a café staffed by both humans and robots. There are three different types of robots working at the café: Pepper and two others. Nao, a small humanoid robot, dances on tables to entertain customers, while Whiz takes on cleaning duties. Pepper greets guests and takes their orders. SoftBank will use this café to gather data on how people use robots and how it can make its products more useful to them.

Robots at the Olympics

Japan is also introducing robots to work at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Toyota is bringing several different robots to the games in order to help provide information, video, and other services. Two of the robots are based on the official Olympic mascots Miraitowa and Someity, and will be greeting and interacting with guests. The T-HR3 is another humanoid robot that is meant to provide a remote experience of the games, streaming images and sounds and even mirroring movements of other robots and people. T-TR1 is a large display on wheels that will allow people to watch and interact with the games remotely. There’s also HSR and DSR: Human Support Robot and Delivery Support Robot. They will help people to their seats and deliver snacks, souvenirs, and other items. And finally, the Field Support Robot (FSR) will retrieve items from the field, such as shot-puts and javelins, finding the best route to return them to where they’re needed.

Robotics in Japan still have a long way to go before they can truly match human performance in many areas. As it stands, fully automated workplaces are a long way away. However, robots are already supplementing and assisting human workers in a number of ways, making jobs easier, safer, and more efficient. They may not be a complete solution to Japan’s aging population and shrinking workforce, but robotics companies are constantly making new innovations and breakthroughs. Who know what robots will look like just 10 years from now?

Discover more insights into robotics in Japan and around the world with Technavio’s market research report, including:
  • The market size and the growth rate through to 2022
  • Key factors driving the global robotics market
  • Key market trends impacting the growth of the global robotics market
  • Challenges to market growth
  • Key vendors in the global robotics market
  • Market opportunities and threats faced by the vendors in the global robotics market
  • Trending factors influencing the market shares of the Americas, APAC, and EMEA
  • Key outcomes of the five forces analysis of the global robotics market