«The Japanese think very courageously.»
Sabina Misoch, Head of the Interdisciplinary Competence Centre for Ageing at the FHS St.Gallen, has been travelling to Japan twice a year for research purposes since 2016. Some of the solutions that the Japanese have found to the problem of the country’s ageing population are also interesting for Switzerland – but not all of them can be transferred directly. An example of an international research project of the FHS St.Gallen.
The average age of Japan’s population is much higher than in Switzerland. Around a third of all Japanese people are at least 64 years old. «Japanese society is already at a point that we won’t reach in Switzerland until 2050/2060,» says Sabina Misoch. The Head of the Interdisciplinary Competence Centre for Ageing IKOA-FHS has been working closely with her Japanese research counterparts for more than two and a half years. «It’s interesting for us to see what solutions Japanese society has found to tackle this problem, especially since there are some similarities with the situation here in Switzerland.» Both countries are highly developed industrial nations where skilled workers and informal carers are becoming increasingly scarce against a backdrop of increasing life expectancies.
The Japanese don’t respond to emails
Sabina Misoch, who also heads what is currently the largest national research project “AGE-NT – Age(ing) in Society”, travelled to Japan on a research trip for the first time in autumn 2016. She has since been there six times and will visit the country for the seventh time this May, after being invited over by the Swiss Embassy in Tokyo. The aim of these trips is to speak with Japanese scientists and business owners, and to establish partnerships with research and industry partners. «On my first trip, I met a Japanese lady who was still working in the ministry at the time. She opened a lot of doors for me. Thanks to her, I was able to meet many important people who I’m still in touch with today,» says Sabina. Personal recommendations are very important in Japan. «The Japanese almost never respond to emails.»
It was one such recommendation that led to the meeting with Takanori Shibata. The 49-year-old engineer developed PARO over a decade ago. The therapy robot, which looks like a young harp seal, is now used worldwide in geriatric care. Takanori Shibata is worshipped in Japan. Sabina has witnessed this idolisation in person. «We attended an exhibition in Tokyo together, where a wide variety of new technologies were on show, including PARO,» she says. «When the exhibition staff saw Takanori Shibata, they practically went crazy and didn’t let him out of their sight.» The gerontologist’s team is currently working with the fluffy robotic seal in the Living Labs of the IKOA-FHS. These are a kind of live laboratory, i.e. households, apartments and rooms in care homes, where the IKOA-FHS tests technical assistance systems in the day-to-day lives of elderly people over an extended period. The therapy robot was previously used solely for people with dementia. Now, it is also being used to treat symptoms of loneliness and depression in elderly people who live in care homes. «The results have been good so far. But it would be great, of course, if PARO could also be used to sustainably improve the quality of life of lonely and depressed old people alongside other forms of therapy,» says Sabina.
Robots for learning how to walk
On her trips to Japan, the gerontologist is also constantly on the look-out for the latest technological assistance and robotic solutions that are already being used for Japan’s older population or which are currently in development. Robotics Week, held annually at one of Tokyo’s largest exhibition centres, is ideal for this purpose. The latest robots are presented at the trade fair. One product in particular caught the eye of Sabina during her last visit: an exoskeleton, also known as a walking robot. “This exoskeleton is attached to the legs and/or the waist and can be used for both therapeutic and nursing purposes,” she says. On the one hand, it can help people in wheelchairs to learn how to walk again. On the other, the exoskeleton could serve as an aid for nursing staff when lifting patients, believes Sabina.
But there were some robots and robot-like objects at the trade fair which the scientist couldn’t really see a use for. “Most of the objects were too playful, too cute, and would seem quite alien to us. But the Japanese apparently enjoy this playful and rather kitsch design,” says Sabina. One of these is a robot arm that takes over the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. “It was nice to look at, but not really useful for elderly people.”
Language and money
For Sabina Misoch, working with her Japanese research colleagues is very inspirational. “The Japanese think very courageously when it comes to technological development.” There is always some exciting input and interesting projects, even though not all of them can be adapted to Switzerland. One challenge is the language. “Most Japanese people are very inhibited when it comes to speaking English. So we sometimes used Google Translate to communicate, which made for some funny situations.” On one occasion, the electronic translator spat out “You have to buy a melon”. “That can’t be right,” she thought. After all, “we’re talking about robotics.” Sabina has since decided to help herself and hire an employee who speaks Japanese.
At present, neither Switzerland nor Japan have a suitable funding mechanism.
The work with the Japanese researchers has not yet resulted in a joint project. There is a lack of funding, which Sabina thinks is a great shame. “At present, neither Switzerland nor Japan have a suitable funding mechanism in place to financially support the work between Switzerland and Japan.” But the gerontologist has not yet given up hope. After all, she knows that the Japanese and their technological progress could also be very beneficial to Switzerland.