Future

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 â€" 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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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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