If you grow old in Japan, expect to be served food by a robot, ride a voice-recognition wheelchair or even possibly hire a nurse in a robotic suit — all examples of cutting-edge technology to care for the country's rapidly greying population. With nearly 22 per cent of Japan's population already aged 65 or older, businesses here have been rolling out everything from easy-entry cars to remote-controlled beds, fuelling a care technology market worth $1.08 billion US in 2006, according to industry figures. At a home-care and rehabilitation convention in Tokyo this week, buyers crowded round a demonstration of Secom Co.'s My Spoon feeding robot, which helps elderly or disabled people eat with a spoon- and fork-fitted swivelling arm.
Operating a joystick with his chin, developer Shigehisa Kobayashi manoeuvred the arm toward a block of silken tofu, deftly getting the fork to break off a bite-sized piece. The arm then returned to a preprogrammed position in front of the mouth, allowing Kobayashi to bite and swallow. "It's all about empowering people to help themselves," Kobayashi said. The Tokyo-based company has already sold 300 of the robots, which come with a price tag of $3,500 US. "We want to give the elderly control over their own lives," he said. The rapidly aging population here has spurred a spate of concerns: a labour shortage, tax shortfalls, financial difficulties in paying the health bills and pensions of large numbers of elderly.