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Thursday, 21 February, 2002, 08:51 GMT
Robot care bears for the elderly
Teddy robot is used to monitor residents
The teddy disguises a range of digital services
test hello test

By J Mark Lytle in Japan
The sleepy town of Kourien on the outskirts of Osaka in western Japan is home to the world's first hi-tech retirement home.

The 106-bed facility run by Matsushita Electrics, called Sincere Kourien, features robot bears whose sole purpose is to watch over the elderly residents.

The bears monitor patients' response times to spoken questions. They record how long they spend performing various tasks, before relaying conclusions to staff or alerting them to unexpected changes.

The voice recognition interface helps remove the barriers presented by using traditional computers for similar tasks.

The fur-covered robotic assistant, simply known as Teddy, hides a microcomputer and a local network connection.

It is the latest in a series of companion robots created by Matsushita. Previous efforts included cats and a surprisingly appealing wombat.

Encouraging response

Teddy is connected to the computer network through a cumbersome cable and is still very much in the experimental phase.

But initial feedback has been encouraging, with most of residents developing an affinity to the bear.

106-bed Sincere Kourien home
Facility used to test Matsushita's technologies
Matsushita Nursing Home Company President, Kuniichi Ozawa, says: "Almost half of the rooms have been reserved and allocated to customers and we expect the rest to be taken quickly."

Mr Ozawa sees the new facility as the ideal opportunity to test Matsushita's technologies.

Since the end of last year, the company has been applying its electronics expertise to the welfare of the elderly inmates.

The residents, whose average age is 82, are guinea pigs, monitored by a battery of technology, including the robot bears networked to a central computer.

Residents can also leave their robot minders aside for a while and benefit from a range of New Age healing techniques, including plant and music therapy.

Lucrative business

Sincere Kourien was built with the aim of bringing the benefits of a digitally connected society to a country with an ageing population.

Running a retirement home may seem like a strange direction for Matsushita, which is better known for its Panasonic and National brands.

But giant Japanese corporations routinely branch out into all manner of developing markets.

The company already runs the Matsushita Memorial Hospital, giving it something of a running start in the care business.

And caring for the elderly looks set to become big business.

Japan already has 22 million people aged over 65. That number is forecast to grow to 30 million by 2005, accounting for 25% of the population.

An obvious concern is how the nation is going to support such an imbalanced population, with an increasingly elderly population putting further strain on the economy.

J Mark Lytle is editor of Japan Inc magazine

See also:

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Predicting AI's future
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Past is the future for Hollywood's robots
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Peering into the future
12 Sep 01 | Artificial intelligence
Computer babbles like a baby
11 Sep 01 | Artificial intelligence
Life with a robot dog
10 Sep 01 | Artificial intelligence
Timeline: Real robots
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