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Robotics makes baby steps toward solving Japan’s child care shortage

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Staff Writer

Child care is a hard job, but somebody, or something, has got to do it.

Japanese researchers have developed androids to meet that need, which includes happily reading that fairy tale again and again and again.

The androids, which were created by a team of education and robotics specialists at a research facility in Abiko, Chiba Prefecture, are part of a larger system called RoHo Care. Short for Robotic Hoikujo (day care center), RoHo is being touted as a high-tech solution to the staffing crisis that forced the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to announce emergency measures this week.

“I never thought I’d see this day, but we’re now confident that RoHo could blaze a trail for child care worldwide,” said team leader Makoto Hara.

At a briefing on Thursday, Hara introduced a “care-droid” prototype named Or-B, the core component of RoHo’s vision for day care assistance, and said it will undergo a trial run this summer before full-scale implementation in 2018.

RoHo Care facilities staffed with only four Or-B and one human supervisor could handle upward of 60 children — three times higher than the average current child-to-staff ratio.

Hara explained that the care-droid’s name is a nod to Janet and Isaac Asimov’s fictional robot, Norby.

“Unlike human day care staff, the Or-B don’t suffer from mental or physical fatigue. They’ll never tire of repeating the same stories and performing the same daily tasks,” Hara said.

“Furthermore, as they can access a vast library of “Anpanman” and “Teletubbies” episodes, they can quickly defuse any temper tantrum and crying jag that might occur.”

In terms of teaching and nurturing, Or-B units have certain advantages.

“Or-B’s voice can be female, male or gender neutral,” said Yoshikazu Musaki, a specialist in early childhood education. Furthermore its learning capabilities, coupled with the latest in artificial intelligence, will allow it to customize its care to each child, Musaki added.

This will draw on the daily diaries, called renrakucho in Japanese, traditionally used for communication between a family and child care facility. In RoHo’s system, the diaries will take the form of a dedicated smartphone app, and the information will be uploaded to the Motherboard, a cloud-based database.

“The ability to cross-reference the information on the Motherboard, while monitoring a child’s nutrition and activity patterns, should give us excellent insight into a child’s progress,” Musaki said.

Although Hara’s team have experimented with various appearances, a jolly blob-like character whose smile takes up most of its face achieved the greatest success rate with test subjects.

“Generally, children are sensitive to the ‘uncanny valley’ syndrome; conventional androids caused extreme reactions of fear,” he said. “More amorphous forms, however, yielded impressive results.”

“We’ve combined elements of Barbapapa, Baymax (a character from the film “Big Hero 6″) and my grandmother,” Hara said with a smile. “Our trial runs have shown this form really resonates with children.”

The Or-B exterior is both malleable and firm, allowing it to embrace, absorb and protect. Its eyes are webcams, which will allow parents to check in on their children at any time. Lessons can be projected onto a flexiscreen implant in its chest area.

At the core of Or-B is NaNa, an operating system that specializes in juvenile emotion recognition and is modeled on the operating system that currently powers SoftBank Corp.’s Pepper android.

Due to its highly accurate facial recognition capability, NaNa can instantly recall an infinite number of names. In tandem with the Motherboard, it can quickly assess a child’s emotional state and respond accordingly.

“Or-B’s overall color can change to match the desired effect. During naptime, for example, Or-B will emanate a calming blue light. When discipline is called for, it will become fiery red,” Hara explained.

Under the auspices of Japan’s recently formed Applied Health Organization (AHO), the project has already attracted a number of major tech players and startups eager for exposure.

“It’s really a win-win for Japan,” AHO Director Kazuhiro Moyashi said at the press briefing. “It means more mothers can join the workforce, but it also means the advances of cute and human-friendly Japanese robotics will finally be recognized.”

One partner company is Furaimi, a leader in cutting-edge drone technology, which is contributing an unmanned aerial vehicle designed to monitor, protect and shepherd children.

Furaimi’s sentinel drone will not only guard nurseries from potential intruders but also take care of neighborhood strolls that are a key part of most day care centers’ daily routines.

Equipped with the same location-aware technology being tested in self-driving vehicles, the senti-drones will be capable of navigating local neighborhoods. They will draw on GPS, motion sensors and Bluetooth technology and guide child carts for daily walks.

“We’re delighted with this chance to change the negative perceptions of drones. Our RoHo Cops can be friendly and helpful,” said Shinnosuke Uemura, head of Furaimi communications. While it’s still under development, Uemura said they are working toward implementing onboard odor sensors. If the drone detects a bathroom accident, it will alert the RoHo facility’s human staffer.

Although each Or-B is expected to cost at least ¥2 million, Moyashi says there are many potential investors from the public and private sectors.

“We expect big-data companies to be especially interested in the potential of gaining access to human behavior from a young age,” Moyashi said. “This data will eventually be linked up with the My Number ID system.”

What do you think of the RoHo Care project? Let us know online: jtimes.jp/roho/