Q4 — 2017 :
Chapter 02
The Business of Aging, a Revolution in Work and the Rise of the Robots
Will robots take over? The rising opportunity of AI and aging
September 26, 2017

In this series, we asked speakers at the Milken Institute Asia Summit to make one prediction for where Asia is headed in the next 20 years. Join the conversation by writing your own article here and including #MIGlobal. Follow the Milken Institute to get updates from the Asia Summit.

Deep in the manufacturing heartland of Asia, assembly lines buzz with robots manufacturing fellow robotics. Meanwhile, it is morning in Tokyo, and a recently retired businessman awakes to find his bed sensors have delivered a diagnostic report to a remote telehealth facility that monitors his well-being and warns of impending issues. His food delivery service drone arrives with his dietary needs for the day, and he enjoys his breakfast followed by a virtual reality meditation session with his former colleagues.

A science fiction scenario of the distant future? Or a present-day reality?

The dichotomy between machine and man has engaged humankind throughout the industrial revolution. And each development in our industrialized history has been met with measures of angst and excitement, adoption and caution. Currently, we are at a unique precipice. Technology can facilitate our daily living, extend our lives, and even preside over our funerals.

The opportunity to leverage technology, specifically artificial intelligence (AI) to meet the demands of an aging population, is unfolding. AI is becoming more seamlessly integrated into daily living. Public and private sectors are seizing the opportunity. Asia is leading the way.

An Aging Asia: The Velocity of Change is Unprecedented

Asia’s changing demographics generate opportunities for capitalizing on the longevity dividend while promoting healthy, productive and purposeful aging. Asia already is home to the largest older adult population and is growing at a faster pace than any other region in the world.

  • By 2050, nearly two-thirds (62.3 percent) of the world’s total older population is projected to be living in Asia and estimated to reach 1.3 billion (ESCAP). 
  • The East Asian “tigers” (South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore) are expected to age at rates faster than even those of Japan.
  • In China, there are 131 million older adults, and by 2050, there will be an estimated 371 million elderly, constituting 27.6 percent of its population, approximately the entire population of the United States.

A rising aging population coupled with lower birth rates and low immigration could severely constrain and place an undue burden on support systems and social services. The shortage of caregivers alone could cause costly and negative health consequences to the aging population. Asia needs a viable model that can be scaled to meet its aging independently and caregiving needs.

Enter AI. The caregivers of tomorrow are being assembled in the factories of today.

Emergent Marketplace of AI:

Forrester Research predicted a greater than 300% increase in AI investment in 2017 compared with 2016. IDC estimated that the AI market will grow from $8 billion in 2016 to more than $47 billion in 2020. Based on these trends, the market for older adults and AI looks promising.

Japan and China are leading the way. In 2012, Japan’s quest to use robotics for caregiving led to a government grant in 2012 of USD$24.6 million to companies focusing on eldercare robotics.

Last year the Chinese government announced its intent to create a USD$15 billion

AI market by 2018. The government plans to roll out projects in smart home apps, cars, unmanned systems, wearables, and robotics.

Public sector support is catalyzing private initiatives and leading to opportunistic disruptions of the marketplace. Japanese automakers are devoting attention to robots that address the needs of country's rapidly aging society by leveraging their expertise in mechanical engineering to invent the next generation of robots.

  • Toyota Motor Corporation is developing Partner Robot Family, a line of robots to serve an aging population and earlier this year, Intuition Robotics, an Israeli developer of AI robots for use by the elderly, raised $14 million in an early stage funding round led by the Toyota Research Institute.
  • Honda is focusing research and commercialization of robotic limbs and assistance devices and has created ASIMO (the Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility robot), a fully functional humanoid.
  • Tokai Rubber Industries, in conjunction with the Japanese research institute RIKEN, has unveiled the Robot for Interactive Body Assistance (RIBA), which can lift up to 175 pounds and is designed for patient comfort.
  • Sapporo-based company Safety Net Linkage has developed a smartphone app to help family members or nursing facilities locate missing dementia patients.

While AI is designed to help people live independently and escape isolation, the challenge remains of authenticating emotional connections. Some speculate that a greater dependence on machines could lead to greater social isolation. Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor, warns, “For the idea of artificial companionship to be our new normal, we have to change ourselves, and in the process, we are remaking human values and human connection.”

The Future of the Future of Aging:

In the next twenty years as the aging population explodes in Asia, a parallel surge of the integration of tech and human support will alter the way we live. Despite the misconception that humans and tech cannot “bond,” AI might have an edge up in Asia where cultures have a predisposition to regard inanimate objects as possessing spirits. While the technology might not be comparable to human care, it can help people age with greater dignity.

Governments will realize cost savings from delayed nursing care and corporations will reap the yield of this burgeoning marketplace. Demand knows no bounds and is as limitless as our innovative disposition to continuously develop solutions that make our lives healthier and richer.

In the end, there may be no substitute for human interaction yet high hopes exist for AI. The question is not can a machine replace a person but how can it complement our lives. Professor Zvi Shiller, Chairperson of Israeli Robotics Association, said it best. “I think we have just seen the tip of the iceberg. When we look around 10 or 15 years later, we will see robots around in a way that you will say ‘I could not understand how we managed to live without them.’”

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