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More useful than a cat: How robots could help the elderly

Aalborg University’s Henrik Scharfe with his robot creation Geminoid-DK.

Nichlas Hansen/Geminoid.DK

When it comes to robotic technology, Denmark's best known citizen may well be Henrik Scharfe. A pr ofessor at Aalborg University, Mr. Scharfe is the master of Geminoid-DK, an eerily lifelike robot created in his image and designed to examine, among other things, the boundaries between robots and humans.

But beyond Mr. Scharfe's high profile project, Denmark has been quietly pushing into the slightly more down to earth field of "welfare technology." Coined in Denmark, the term describes the use of robots and other devices that assist in the care of the elderly and the disabled.

The Danes hope welfare technology will not only grow into a significant industry, but also offer a solution to a vexing demographic problem. Like many European countries, Denmark is grappling with the mounting cost of providing generous tax-funded hospital and elder care to an aging population. At the same time, it is anticipating a significant shortage of labour. More than 38 per cent of employees in the elder care sector alone are over 50 years old and will retire in the next 10 to 15 years, according to one study.

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"There is a great increase in the elderly and the number of people with chronic diseases," said Nina Husfeldt Clasen of Denmark's Office for Welfare Technology. "If we don't do something drastic we won't be able to provide the care to the elderly and sick people that they expect."

Enter the robot. In 2006, Denmark created a fund of three billion Danish kronor ($519-million) to study how technologies like service robots can be used to replace manual labour in various public services. Since then the country has experimented with robotic pet seals that comfort dementia patients, devices to enable Danes to monitor their chronic illnesses at home and most recently, a washing tunnel to assist in the bathing of patients. Indeed Denmark has been actively marketing itself as an ideal test market for such devices.

"It's easy to compare the population here, we have good data and people are quite open to new technology," said Christian Graversen of the Confederation of Danish Industry.

Much early interest has come from Japan, a country that dwarfs Denmark in both its comfort level with robots and the severity of its demographic challenges. Japan's Cyberdyne wants to test an "exoskeleton suit" in Denmark that will help disabled people walk. Panasonic is testing a bed with a built-in wheelchair and Tmsuk, another robotics firm, plans to develop Roberior, an elder care robot, in the country.

Still it's too soon to say if the efforts will pay off, said Mr. Graversen.

"This is a new venture for Denmark to combine a lot of existing technology with new technology and new ways of working," he said. "But if we figure it out, it has quite big potential. We're addressing an opportunity that will arise in most European countries but also in China as populations age."

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