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Aliens exoskeletons for Japanese old-timers

Wrinkly-minding droids to staff nursing homes in 20 years

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Designers in Japan have developed a working Aliens-style powered exoskeleton, and intend to market it next year.

The Japan Times reports that Yoshiyuki Sankai, a professor at the University of Tsukuba, has teamed up with Daiwa House Industry Co to manufacture "400 to 500 suits annually", from 2008.

The motorised exoskeleton, a little disappointingly, is not actually intended for space crews battling murderous acid-blooded interstellar monsters: nor even for mundane heavy-lifting tasks. Professor Sankai and his industry colleagues are looking more at the medical and elderly-care market. The exoskeleton is intended to enable people with walking difficulties to get about without assistance. A machine will apparently lease for 70,000 yen "plus maintenance fee", or just under £300 per month. More expensive than a Zimmer frame, then, but potentially a lot more fun.

According to the Japan Times, the suit doesn't necessarily require limb function to operate: it works by "reading signals from the brain", so even those with spinal problems could find it useful.

Prof Sankai's motor-muscle suit is just one of a range of automated technologies that the Japanese government wants to see implemented in coming years. The idea is that sophisticated robotic gear will look after the large numbers of old-timers expected to be inhabiting Japan soon.

The New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organisation, a state-funded entity pushing such developments, wants to see a full range of robotised assistance options for the old. They'd like the gerontobotics gear available 20 years from now when the baby boom generation enter their 80s. This is to prevent the few remaining youngsters becoming overwhelmed by the demanding requirements of the burgeoning wrinkly hordes.

"We want to make it available when the aging of society becomes serious," an official told the Japan Times.

There are already, apparently, mechanical arms which will spoon up food when a switch is touched by a user's jaw; and computer human-interface kit operated by eyeball movements.

It remains to be seen just how kindly the ageing Japanese generation will take to robot nurses and motorised brain-reading walker machines. It's possible to speculate that a few testy curmudgeons at least will resist being handed over to the droids when they turn 80, obstinately beating off nurse-bots with old-school walking sticks and insisting on milky tea made by human hands. ®

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