Societal Challenges

A future with robot suits

May 3, 2016 / By Yoshiyuki Sankai

One of the most serious challenges facing Japanese society—and, increasingly, other advanced economies—is the aging population. It is estimated that by 2050, nearly 40% of all Japanese people will be 65 or older.1 Those 100 or older are projected to increase from just over 60,000 today to approximately 640,000 by 2060. Issues such as health, longevity and nursing care will become more serious as the population continues to age.

Technology is already helping to address these challenges—by improving individual quality of life and outcomes for society. And it can do much more.

Yet to enable technology to help us to the maximum extent, we need to think about it differently. Too many today ask the wrong question: “where will technology go next”? But many of the greatest advances have arisen from the opposite approach: define the problem you want to solve, and then develop technology to solve it. More specifically, when it comes to aging, rather than speculating by extrapolating current technology forward, it makes far more sense to formulate a vision of what we want to achieve and then consider what we should develop to achieve that vision.

Since all social issues are caused by multiple factors, my firm—Cyberdyne, Inc.—seeks to solve them by making full use of “Cybernics,”—a new, interdisciplinary academic field centering on cybernetics, mechatronics and informatics in which neuroscience, robotics, information technology, physiology, psychology, laws, ethics, and business administration are deeply intertwined.

Example: HAL

Cyberdyne created the world’s first cyborg-type robot suit Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL®). HAL, developed through Cybernics techniques, is the world’s first cyborg-type robot that responds to faint bioelectrical signals transmitted from the wearer’s cerebral and nervous systems and assists the user’s intended movement.

When a person attempts to move, a “move” message is issued from the motion-specific area of the brain and transmitted to muscles through the spinal cord. This message is observed as faint bioelectrical signals on the surface of the skin. Although the signals of physically challenged persons are very weak or simply not strong enough, we conducted research and development on high-sensitivity sensors and signal processing systems capable of reading such signals. HAL analyzes and processes bioelectrical signals of a wearer with physical disabilities and if capable of catching those signals, assists in carrying out the intended motion. HAL in other words, enables the physically challenged to move as they wish.

This motion principle has been applied to the field of rehabilitation support. Namely, HAL can improve the mobility of physically-challenged persons. When a wearer with a neuron disability moves, the sensation generated from that motion is fed back to the brain. This motion and feedback forms a loop leading to physical improvements. The repetitive loop will adjust the wearer’s neural network gradually, and ultimately enable the person to move even without support from HAL.

Joining HAL in being brought to the medical community are single joint (arm/knee joint) and lumbar solutions to support those working in manually-intensive professions and for the elderly. For example, the lumbar device targets the caregiver profession where 70-80% of caregivers suffer from lower back pain. HAL (lumbar type) helps the wearer give assistance to a care-receiver while reducing the load on the caregiver’s lumbar region. This lumbar design is also being deployed to those working in job locations where aging can be a serious issue, including construction sites, factories, logistics and agriculture.

New development work has started to apply this technology to help patients suffering with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and other intractable diseases requiring intensive nursing care. A patient in an advanced stage of ALS has difficulty communicating and in many instances, is barely able to move. In order to convey intentions, the patient currently has to point to each letter on a communication board to compose the desired message and then a caregiver has to orchestrate those letters into a message. For now, increasing the speed of this communication requires tremendous effort and mastery similar to attaining a high level of craftsmanship. However, our technology can detect bioelectrical signals linked with the patient’s intention to enter letters through a PC keyboard and convert it into a message. Verification has been completed on the fundamental technology and introductory evaluation system and is currently being tested by some patients.

People as a whole have rejected the process of natural selection and instead chosen the path of moving forward with technology. Our future will always be with technology. We must be mindful that our destiny will differ depending on what technologies we develop and how we apply them within our evolving societies.

Future with robot suits

Hear Yoshiyuki Sankai explain how technology can do more to help with the aging retirement population.

Yoshiyuki Sankai

About the author

Yoshiyuki Sankai
Professor and the Director at the Center for Cybernics Research, University of Tsukuba; President and CEO of CYBERDYNE Inc.

Yoshiyuki Sankai is a Japanese businessman and academic, the founder, president and CEO of the cyborg-robot maker Cyberdyne; and professor of the Graduate School of Systems & Information Engineering at the University of Tsukuba.