Japan

An Aging Japan Turns To Exoskeletons For Elder Care

Japan has become a leader in developing technology to aid not just elderly or otherwise limited people conduct everyday chores but also for the medical, defense and aviation industries in a country with a shrinking work force.

Testing an ActiveLink exoskeleton
Testing an ActiveLink exoskeleton
Jonas Pulver

TOKYO — It takes the engineer about two minutes to adjust the exoskeleton. It's worn like a rucksack, with large straps around the chest to hold it tight. The rest is made up of two disks located on the hips, at the body's rotation axis, and thin rods join cushions on the front part of the thighs. The whole device weighs a little over 6 kilos (13 pounds), distributed between shoulders and thighs.

In front of you, a 30-kilo (66 pounds) water-bottle crate awaits lifting. The first attempt, without the exoskeleton, results in immediate tension in your lower back muscles, and you start to feel fatigue after just two movements. But for the second try, the engineer activates the device. You lift up the crate five, six, seven times in a row without effort. The thrust intervenes on your thighs and upper chest. The movement is quick, almost abrupt, but is still controllable.

The assist suit AWN-03 is the first commercially available product from Japanese company ActiveLink, a Panasonic subsidiary. ActiveLink was among the brands that participated a few weeks ago in Tokyo's International Robot Exhibition, the world's largest robotics show. In the exhibition's "social" and "service" areas, where there were humanoid prototypes designed to intervene in natural disasters, all eyes were on the exoskeletons.

Their development and implementation in Japan fall within a particular context. A low birth rate and a strict immigration policy mean the archipelago's population is aging fast. From 127 million people in 2014, the number of inhabitants is expected to drop below 100 million by 2050. Among the primary collateral effects are a significant work force reduction and growing demand for elderly care, consequences that call for new measures.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government intend for innovation to boost the performance of the working-age population. Intensive automation is one of the key measures, especially in the services sector and for small- and medium-sized businesses. Larger groups in the car-making and electronics industries are already highly robotized.

The government's "New Robot Strategy" report, published in early 2015, calls for turning Japan into a vast "robot hub" by focusing on the conjunction of the "Internet of Things" and a daily robot presence. According to the Mitsubishi Research Institute, service-oriented robotics in Japan will grow from a $500 million industry in 2014 to a multi-billion dollar one by 2035.

Exoskeletons in Japan find their utility at the junction of three challenges: health care, physical assistance and maintaining the country's level of production despite a shrinking work force. ActiveLink's website features images of a man whose hair has started to turn grey lifting up a small container without effort, and photos of a young woman easily transporting what seems to be a heavy parcel.

Yasunori Nishi, an engineer at Fukunishi, the company that sells ActiveLink products, says the exoskeleton detects the user's movements and assists thanks to a lithium-ion-battery-powered electric engine. It costs about $10,000.

The Japanese aren't the only ones working on exoskeletons. In Europe and in the United States, a number of projects will soon be unveiled in the sectors of defense, industry and rehabilitation. Robo-Mate, an exoskeleton with passive arm modules, has received support from the European Union and is said to have attracted interest from Fiat. The American company Lockheed Martin has developed Fortis, a non-motorized exoskeleton that transfers loads endured by the hands on to the hips and feet. Swiss startup Noonee is meanwhile putting the finishing touches on its Chairless Chair, a portable system that allows users to stand in a sitting position without effort, a concept drawing the interest of several car manufacturers. In the military field also, armors such as KOS or TALOS (dubbed "Iron Man Suit") promise to transform soldier performance.

In Japan, the commercialization of exoskeletons is already underway. Innophys, a startup founded in 2013 at the Tokyo University of Science, has already dispatched about 1,000 units across the country, in particular to Asahi-Sun, an elderly care supplier. Lighter than ActiveLink's AWN-03, Innophys' Exo-Muscle is a little less quick but offers more flexibility for a similar lifting capacity of 22 to 30 kilos (48 to 66 pounds). But Exo-Muscle uses an entirely different technology: compressed air, which is injected into rubber valves that inflate and contract.

"The key part with exoskeletons is the controlling: The device has to understand when to initiate the movement," explains Takashi Fujimoto, Innophys CEO. "As far as we're concerned, we're banking on a switch that reacts to respiration intensity." A sensor placed inside the mouth detects the wearer's exhalation. It's thus possible to control Exo-Muscle without using your hands and without risk that the exoskeleton might activate by mistake. Prices start at about $6,000.

Cyberdyne, a global leader in medical exoskeletons, has solved this controlling issue in a more ambitious way. Working together with the robotic department at the University of Tsukuba, Cyberdyne has developed a system of dermal patches with sensors that can detect electrical signals from our nervous system. That way, Cyberdyne's robotic suits react directly to the user's movement intentions.

The HAL exoskeleton series the company has developed includes one model on show at the exhibition, the impressively smooth HAL-CB01. Lighter than all its competitors and also less cumbersome, it sheathes the thighs and hips, and the sensors are located on the lumbars. The assistance it provides is less powerful but more precise and more progressive. More importantly, you can work with the HAL-CB01 for an entire day, for example in a hospital. But the costs are substantial. Only 300 units are available for now, at a rental price that can vary from $800 to $2,000 per month.

Cyberdyne is already working on other prototypes that can assist all four limbs, the torso and even the head. Its Disaster-Recovery model, an entire titanium and carbon-fiber body armor with an anti-radiation jacket, is still in research and development. Last year, the company and Tokyo's Haneda airport announced a partnership for the progressive introduction of portable and mobile robotic material. Eventually, the two wish to team up to develop a new generation of robots designed specifically for civil aviation needs.

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Pro-life and Pro-abortion Rights Protests in Washington

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Håfa adai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where new Omicron findings arrive from South Africa, abortion rights are at risk at the U.S. Supreme Court and Tyrannosaurus rex has got some new competition. From Germany, we share the story of a landmark pharmacy turned sex toy museum.

[*Chamorro - Guam]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Iran's hard line on nuclear talks keeps getting harder

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear power watchdog, reported yesterday that Iran has started producing enriched uranium with more efficient advanced centrifuges at its Fordow plant. It’s just the latest sign, write Kayhan London’s Ahmad Ra'fat and Hamed Mohammadi, that the talks that reopened this week on Iran’s nuclear program have slim chances of forging a deal:

After a four-month hiatus, Iran has resumed talks on its nuclear program with other signatory countries of the suspended, multilateral pact of 2015. These are Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, and the European Union (EU). The talks that began this week in Vienna exclude the United States, an original signatory that withdrew from the pact in 2018 — and while the U.S. administration under President Joe Biden says it favors a deal, it is only indirectly involved, through the EU.

Prospects for this round remain dim, given Iran's preconditions and the stated objectives of Western states. The Iranian deputy-foreign minister, Ali Baqeri-Kani, said on a recent trip to several EU states that Iran would only resume talks to discuss ending sanctions on it, and there would be no discussions for a nuclear agreement. He was suggesting that an end to all sanctions — whether for Tehran's nuclear program, rights violations or terrorism abroad — was the central condition for more talks.

It was also reported Wednesday by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear power watchdog, that Iran has started producing enriched uranium with more efficient advanced centrifuges at its Fordow plant.

Likewise, a recent and fruitless trip to Tehran by IAEA head Rafael Grossi will not help. Grossi could not persuade Iran to allow renewed IAEA inspections of its atomic sites, which will impede an agreement in Vienna. The three European signatory powers have already criticized Iran's refusal to open up its sites, though Iranian officials dispute that interpretation, saying an agreement was reached "in principle" to resolve "technical" issues.

The latest report by the IAEA chief to its governing board, currently meeting in Vienna, says Iran has augmented its enriched uranium reserves (of potential use in weapon-making) to 2,489 kilograms. The European countries say there is no reason for Iran enriching uranium to 20% and 60% levels, without military objectives. They are also concerned with Iran's continued renovation and updating of centrifuges.

U.S. military and diplomatic officials have warned that the United States is ready to give Iran a firm response if it pursues its furtive activities and refuses to negotiate in Vienna. In the Middle East, Israeli officials alternately say they could accept a pact that blocks Iran's nuclear weaponization and warn Israel will strike Iran, if this turns out to not be possible.

Iran promised Grossi last September that it would repair IAEA cameras at its nuclear installations, thus evading a rebuke by the IAEA governing board. This time, it seems to be playing hardball. It has not only banned access to the Tesa complex outside Tehran, of interest to the IAEA, but insisted the international agency must condemn Israel's suspected sabotage of Iranian installations, and desist any investigation into the sources of uranium traces found at undeclared installations in Iran.

Iran also wants the Biden administration not just to lift all sanctions, but bind future administrations to a new pact. Does it really imagine that a U.S. president is willing or empowered to commit his successors to a pact?

Iran has also complained about the damages it suffered for the non-implementation of the 2015 pact. All these suggest it doesn't really want a practical agreement with the West.

As Western powers intermittently threaten it with an "alternative" response, at least part of Iran's top leadership is already envisaging turning the country into a militarized bunker to safeguard the regime. This means spending more on missiles and arms for proxy militias in the region — which are precisely the other issues the West is keen to discuss, to Iran's utter dismay.

Amid reports of the "strategic" hoarding of basic goods and multiple military maneuvers, are Iran's rulers preparing themselves for a state of crisis or utter calamity? In case of any attack, could they count on the backing of a nation they have mistreated and impoverished over decades?

Ahmad Ra'fat and Hamed Mohammadi / Kayhan-London

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• COVID update: South Africa reports a higher rate of reinfections from the Omicron variant than has been registered with the Beta and Delta variants, though researchers await further findings on the effects of the new strain. Meanwhile, the UK approves the use of a monoclonal therapy, known as sotrovimab, to treat those at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.The approval comes as the British pharmaceutical company, GSK, separately announced the treatment has shown to “retain activity” against the Omicron variant. Down under, New Zealand’s reopening, slated for tomorrow is being criticized as posing risks to its under-vaccinated indigenous Maori.

• Supreme Court poised to gut abortion rights: The U.S. Supreme Court signaled a willingness to accept a Republican-backed Mississippi law that would bar abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. A ruling, expected in June, may see millions of women lose abortion access, 50 years after it was recognized as a constitutional right in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

• Macri charged in Argentine spying case: Argentina’s former president Mauricio Macri has been charged with ordering the secret services to spy on the family members of 44 sailors who died in a navy submarine sinking in 2017. The charge carries a sentence of three to ten years in prison. Macri, now an opposition leader, says the charges are politically motivated.

• WTA suspends China tournaments over Peng Shuai: The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns about the well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, and the safety of other players. Peng disappeared from public view after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault.

• Michigan school shooting suspect to be charged as an adult: The 15-year-old student accused of killing four of his classmates and wounding seven other people in a Michigan High School will face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder. Authorities say the suspect had described wanting to attack the school in cellphone videos and a journal.

• Turkey replaces finance minister amid economic turmoil: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan appointed a strong supporter of his low-interest rate drive, Nureddin Nebati, as Turkey’s new finance minister.

• A battle axe for a tail: Chilean researchers announced the discovery of a newly identified dinosaur species with a completely unique feature from any other creatures that lived at that time: a flat, weaponized tail resembling a battle axe.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

South Korean daily Joong-ang Ilbo reports on the discovery of five Omicron cases in South Korea. The Asian nation has broken its daily record for overall coronavirus infections for a second day in a row with more than 5,200 new cases. The variant cases were linked to arrivals from Nigeria and prompted the government to tighten border controls.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

¥10,000

In the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, a reward of 10,000 yuan ($1,570) will be given to anyone who volunteers to take a COVID-19 test and get a positive result, local authorities announced on Thursday on the social network app WeChat.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Why an iconic pharmacy is turning into a sex toy museum

The "New Pharmacy" was famous throughout the St. Pauli district of Hamburg for its history and its long-serving owner. Now the owner’s daughter is transforming it into a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys, linking it with the past "curing" purpose of the shop, reports Eva Eusterhus in German daily Die Welt.

💊 The story begins in autumn 2018, when 83-year-old Regis Genger stood at the counter of her pharmacy and realized that the time had come for her to retire. At least that is the first thing her daughter Anna Genger tells us when we meet, describing the turning point that has also shaped her life and that of her business partner Bianca Müllner. The two women want to create something new here, something that reflects the pharmacy's history and Hamburg's eclectic St. Pauli quarter (it houses both a red light district and the iconic Reeperbahn entertainment area) as well as their own interests.

🚨 Over the last few months, the pharmacy has been transformed into L'Apotheque, a venture that brings together art and business in St. Pauli's red light district. The back rooms will be used for art exhibitions, while the old pharmacy space will house a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys. Genger and Müllner want to show that desire has always existed and that people have always found inventive ways of maximizing pleasure, even in times when self-gratification was seen as unnatural and immoral, as a cause of deformities.

🏩 Genger and Müllner want the museum to show how the history of desire has changed over time. The art exhibitions, which will also center on the themes of physicality and sexuality, are intended to complement the exhibits. They are planning to put on window displays to give passers-by a taste of what is to come, for example, British artist Bronwen Parker-Rhodes's film Lovers, which offers a portrait of sex workers during lockdown.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never."

— U.S. actor Alec Baldwin spoke to ABC News, his first interview since the accident that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust last October. The actor said that although he was holding the gun he didn’t pull the trigger, adding that the bullet “wasn't even supposed to be on the property.”

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

A “pro-life” activist in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington D.C, as the abortion battle heats up in the United-States — Photo: Stefani Reynolds/CNP/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet and Jane Herbelin

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