As head of BlackRock’s Global Retirement Strategy Group, I meet some interesting people who all have different ideas about how an aging global population is changing the way we think about retirement. At a recent BlackRock Retirement Institute Roundtable in Tokyo, I spoke with a man whose technological innovations for older generations, while seemingly stuff of science fiction, could prove to be game changing.
Chip: When we read in the Wall Street Journal about a 67-year-old man still able to work at his job stacking 44-pound boards, because he wears one of your robot suits from CYBERDYNE, we knew we had to talk to you. Where did the inspiration for the robot come from?
Sankai: The most serious challenge facing Japanese society—and, increasingly, other advanced economies—is the aging population. Issues such as health and longevity and nursing care will become more serious as populations continue to age. Technology is already helping to address these challenges by improving individual quality of life and outcomes for society. And it can do much more.
Yet to enable technology to help us to the maximum extent, we need to think about it differently. Too many today ask the wrong question: “Where will technology go next”? But all the greatest advances have arisen from the opposite approach: define the problem you want to solve, and then develop technology to solve it. More specifically, when it comes to aging, rather than speculating by extrapolating current technology forward, it makes far more sense to formulate a vision of what we want to achieve and then consider what we should develop to achieve that vision.
Chip: So what challenge were you trying to solve?
Sankai: When people get older, deterioration in their physical functions is unavoidable—among the healthy population and those with chronic conditions alike. Addressing these challenges is the direction in which technology should go. It is very important to keep this beneficial cycle of innovation going, namely to develop innovative technologies that solve challenges, evolve these technologies into creation of new industries and take on more challenges for a better future.
Chip: How do these robot suits work?
Sankai: “HAL”—that’s the name, short for “Hybrid Assistive Limb”—responds to faint bio-electrical signals that are transmitted from the wearer’s cerebral and nervous systems and detected on the wearer’s skin surface just before muscle contraction. When a person attempts to move, a “move” message is issued from the motion-specific area of the brain and transmitted to muscles through the spinal cord. HAL detects this brain-generated message peripherally and seamlessly assists the user’s intended movement in real time.
Chip: Aside from stacking 44-pound boards, what are some of HAL’s other uses?
Sankai: HAL can do more than help a person perform physical tasks. It can also improve the physical functions of physically-challenged persons, like those who are recovering from stroke or spinal cord injury, or delay the advancement of slowly progressive neuromuscular diseases. When a wearer with a neuronal disability is able to move with HAL, the sensation generated from that motion is transmitted back to the brain. This motion and feedback forms a loop that provides valuable information to the brain, leading to physical and functional improvements. The repetitive loop will adjust the wearer’s neural network gradually, and ultimately enable the person to move even without support from HAL.
In addition, HAL is used on the other side of the equation. It is said that 70-80 percent of caregivers suffer from lower back pain. So we developed a new type of HAL, HAL for Care Support (Lumbar Type), which helps the caregiver by reducing the load on their lumbar region while providing assistance to a patient.
Chip: Amazing stuff. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.