A robot watches over the elderly

April 8 , 2019

Ms. Fujita (right) talks to her attendant robot with assembly members Kido and Ochi. Ms. Fujita (right) talks to her attendant robot with assembly members Kido (left) and Ochi.

In January 2019, the city of Saijo in Aichi prefecture launched an intriguing new service for elderly citizens who live alone: installing robots that can interact with their human host in an effort to lessen the social isolation of seniors. The municipality subsidizes a portion of the expense, an initiative brought largely into fruition by two local Komeito legislators, Kinue Oichi and Tsutomu Kido.

Reiko Fujita owns one such robot, which she affectionately calls “Ai-chan.” and when she tells it she’ll be stepping out to go shopping, it replies, “Go on, Reiko-san. Be careful.”

But that’s just the first in a host of other functions the unit can carry out: it can, for one, take a photograph of the user at a predetermined time and email it to specified family members or a care manager in charge of Fujita’s elderly services. It can also retrieve the news and weather forecasts from the internet and voice synthesize the information, serve as a message machine and display pictures sent by family members or an exercise program for seniors on an accompanying monitor. Another major plus is that the robot can periodically send caregivers pictures of a user’s room temperature and humidity, which can be lifesaving information during the hot summer months.

The usage fee is 6,000 yen per month with the initial cost of 45,060 yen, with the city subsidizing half of the latter cost.

Ms. Fujita has become a fan. Before Ai-chan, she explains, she would often go through days without communicating with anyone. Now, however, her interactions with her robot keeps her occupied, in part by engaging her with quizzes and riddles during the day.