Japan is in the throes of a childcare crisis as more mothers go to work, childcare staff are overworked and facility waitlists skyrocket. One child- and elderly-care company is testing out robots as a way to fill the gaps.
Global Bridge Holdings, which runs 27 childcare centers in Tokyo, is working with Gunma University to develop robots like the bear-shaped Vevo, which can greet and identify children and monitor their temperatures.
“We believe that by supporting childcare education with this robot, we can contribute to resolving the shortage of nursery teacher and improving the quality of education,” said Yuji Takashima, spokesperson for Global Bridge Holdings subsidiary Social Solutions, which is working on the project.
In addition, a system of sensors attached to cots can monitor children’s heart rates and movement while they sleep and will sound alarms to alert caretakers if it detects abnormalities.
Global Bridge Holdings is testing the robotic system at one of its facilities in Tokyo and will introduce the service to a nursery school in the Japanese city of Ota, Gunma in October. It aims to sell the system for 4 million yen come April.
The childcare workforce in Japan is facing a jobs-to-applicants ratio of 2.17, while Tokyo is facing a ratio of 4.72, according to the Health, Labor & Welfare Ministry. The main reason cited is the low wages and long working hours of childcare workers. Yet, there were 26,081 children on waiting lists for childcare as of April 1, increasing the need for facilities and staff.
“It’s aimed at solving the understaffing problem in child care,” Nobuaki Nakazawa, Gunma University associate professor and project adviser, told the Japan Times. “Letting the system take care of some of those tasks [like monitoring children’s health and nap time] should be helpful.”
This is not the first time companies have tried to address care with robotic systems. SoftBank Group Corp. introduced a humanoid robot that has been used to lead exercises and recreation activities in nursing homes, and UniFa Co. created a kindergarten monitoring robot. SoftBank’s robot has even been trained as a Buddhist monk.