A feeding machine and a furry, therapeutic seal — both designed to make life easier for older people — were among robots honored at a government-sponsored robotics award ceremony in Japan on Thursday.
The "My Spoon" feeding robot, which won a prize in the "service robots" category of the Robot Award 2006, helps older or disabled people eat with a joystick-controlled swiveling arm that shovels morsels from a plate to the person's mouth.
My Spoon, which is already sold in Japan and Europe, doesn't force feed: the spoon-fitted arm stops at a preprogrammed position in front of the mouth so users can bite and swallow at their leisure, according to developer Secom Co.
Another robot awarded in the service category was "Paro," a furry seal fitted with sensors beneath its fur and whiskers that let it respond to petting by opening and closing its eyes and moving its flippers.
More than 800 of the seal robots, developed by Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science, are used for therapy in Japanese nursing homes and by autistic and handicapped children, according to the award's Web site.
Also awarded Thursday at the lavish Tokyo ceremony was a mammoth, automatic vacuum-cleaner-on-wheels that uses elevators to travel unaided between floors, designed by Fuji Heavy Industries.
The Motoman factory worker robot by Yaskawa Electric Corp., which emulates human hand movements, won a prize in the industrial robots category.
Robots are seen in Japan as one way to deal with a rapidly aging population and combat an impending labor shortage. The country's population of 127 million is expected to plunge 30 percent by 2055, with those aged 65 or older making up 40 percent of that figure, according to government forecasts released earlier this week.
Amid a general reluctance to accept more foreign laborers, robots are seen as a way to make up the shortfall in manpower either directly or by helping older people work longer. Robots could also help care for the country's growing elderly population, analysts say.
The Robot Award was set up earlier this year by the Japanese government to promote research and development in the robotics industry. Ten robots won prizes out of a total of 152 entries from across Japan.