The History & Future of Care Robots 2024

This symposium brings together scholars and students across diverse disciplines such as history, anthropology, engineering, technology, information sciences, and Japan studies, along with experts in the care industry, to share their research findings and experiences related to the integration of assistive technologies in elderly and disability care in Japan, Denmark, and the US. We will also discuss strategies for enhancing the practicality and accessibility of care robots and other technological devices for both users and care workers.


Friday March 29
SESSION 1: Do Robots Really “Care”?
1:00 - 3:00PM

For the past decade, government and research organizations in Japan have been investing heavily in Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HCAI) to balance the benefits of economic development with the technological costs to wellbeing (shiawase). Many of these technologies are called “human-centered” (ningen chūshin) because they focus specifically on emotion recognition in order to improve attentiveness and care for their human users. For example, companion robots from Sony and SoftBank can purportedly recognize emotions from facial expressions and voice inflections; and some cameras from Panasonic can detect anxiety through heart-rate variations visible in light variations of blood vessels in skin. These technological advances raise a question of concern to both HCAI technology users and social scientists: If emerging emotion-focused AI technologies are “human-centered,” how do engineers imagine human wellness through technological platforms of mediation? To address this question, this presentation examines the application of the companion robot LOVOT, made by the company Groove X, to facilitate emotional comfort among adults and the elderly as well as social emotional learning among children. Based on interviews with Groove X staff, LOVOT engineers and consultants, as well as with developmental psychologists, the paper maps a contested field of opinions on how emerging robots with artificial emotional intelligence can or cannot cultivate healthy forms of emotional support for robot users.

This talk considers digital care technologies such as robots and monitoring devices in relation to the idea of “leeway” (yoyū in Japanese), drawing on my ethnographic fieldwork on care robots in Japan and the “machine theory” developed by anthropologist Michael Fisch based on his research on Tokyo’s commuter train network. In the domain of residential elder care as in the commuter train network, we are confronted with dynamic human-machine systems operating ever further beyond their intended capacities. I explore yoyū as a salient concept for thinking about how the development and implementation of digital care technologies within a socio-technical assemblage of care might avoid a rigid, overdetermined, productivist, and instrumentalized vision of care, instead expanding what Fisch terms the “margin of indeterminacy” and increasing opportunities for relational engagement with and between human users. The talk will propose what this might look like in concrete terms. As I aim to demonstrate, such an approach serves to reframe questions of trust, control, and autonomy in collective relationships with technological systems.

Set against the commonly cited backdrop of demographic and social uncertainty, concerns over future workforces, care services, and government spending – and, recently, relative economic decline – Japan seems to be increasingly turning to robots and other advanced technologies to provide essential labour. The reasons for this push, and the consequences of it, are well-established and have been subject to much discussion within social science literature, especially those works concerned with the prominent role of humanoid robots in the collective imagination. In this paper, rather than attempt to retread this excellent body of scholarship, I will instead discuss the potential roles that various assistive technologies play in providing “good” care in Japanese long-term eldercare facilities—those key sites in the ongoing discussions around demographic change and the technologization of certain social forms of labor. I will briefly provide some important context, interpreted through the conceptual lens of sociotechnical imaginaries (Jasanoff and Kim 2015), before turning to an ethnographic discussion of technology in (care) practice. Based on approximately one year of fieldwork across five different long-term eldercare facilities in the Kansai region of Japan, I will discuss two particular assistive technologies and the ways they were integrated (to varying degrees of success) into existing local frameworks and practices of “good” care for the elderly with dementia. Of particular interest are the ways that these technologies were seen to help or hinder the provision of both karada (bodily) and kokoro (emotional, spiritual) care, and the care required for these technologies to work “appropriately.” Importantly, these patterns of technology use fit into broader conceptualisations of good care as an intimate social practice that is attuned not only to human bodies but understandings of “the ordinary” itself.

Japanese care centers have seen an increasing reliance on robotic assistance in service and social-care tasks, which poses questions about ethics, governance, and caregiving practices. This presentation addresses the concept of robotics as a media technology, and the role of human agency in shaping imagination as an interpretive framework as it reflects on two specific points of debate; (1) whether the humanoid robot Pepper, deployed in an elder-care nursing home in Japan, has some form of agency in its interaction with a nursing home resident; and (2) whether appropriate anthropological debates about being (properly reframed with regard to difference) provide insight into the reality of robot care. Adapting an approach by anthropologist Boellstorff (2016), whose work focuses on the reality of virtual worlds, this presentation analyzes whether questions regarding the real of robot care are questions of being, i.e. of ontology. Conflating the interhuman with the real and the robotic with the unreal—or, in this case, conflating human care with the real (authentic) and robot care with the unreal (artificial)—can negatively affect our ability to discuss the reality of the robotic. The ontological turn can yield important insights, but its potential is lost if what is real is preassigned to the physical.

SESSION 2: Who “Cares” About Robots?
3:30 - 5:30pm

This study addresses the pressing need for enhanced accessibility in Extended Reality (XR), focusing on Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies, particularly for elderly users and those with disabilities. It identifies and analyzes a range of accessibility challenges within XR environments, including physical, cognitive, and sensory barriers. The paper evaluates existing solutions, highlighting gaps and areas for improvement.


Emphasizing the importance of standards like those set by IEEE, the research demonstrates how these guidelines can shape more accessible XR development. Through a number of case studies, it illustrates successful applications of accessible XR technologies. The study advocates for a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach, urging the involvement of developers, designers, end-users, and disability advocates in crafting inclusive XR experiences.


Looking ahead, the paper discusses potential technological advancements and design methodologies that could further bridge the accessibility gap in XR. This research aims to contribute to a future where XR technologies not only overcome barriers but also empower and enhance the lives of a broader range of users, advocating for a more inclusive approach in technology design.

The last decades have seen a vast growth of robotics applications in the industrial environment. Along with the widespread adoption of robots, the expectations towards robots engaged in social environments have consequently grown. However, the question about what is the most effective approach to make robots understand and fulfill the needs of humans is still one of the topics of discussion among robotic researchers. And, more importantly, this question extends the discussion at a methodological level to what is the degree and nature of collaboration required with other science disciplines. The importance of this discussion lies in the fact that the perspective of robotic researchers towards the matter is indicative of the type of methodological limitations that robotic researchers may unintendedly create on collaborative research with experts of multidisciplinary fields, ranging from limiting the collaboration to information sharing to allowing collaborations open for new hypothesis and roadmap. In this talk, I will introduce the methodology of research of Cognitive Developmental Robotics at Osaka University, where I conducted my postgraduate studies. I will share experiences and reflections from colleagues with backgrounds in psychology and neuroscience who joined our laboratory for multidisciplinary collaboration. Finally, I will discuss what the experts on caring for disabled people could potentially do to improve their collaboration with robotic researchers, and what robotics experts could reconsider to have a much richer collaboration with other disciplines.

Elderly care is becoming a serious issue to which robots are expected to contribute as the proportion of older people in the population grows dramatically. In addition to rehabilitation and physical support, researchers also pay attention to applying social robots for mental support to older people with dementia through social interaction to reduce the caregivers’ workload. Previous studies report that the introduction of social robots into nursing homes has positive effects on older people with dementia, such as the reduction of social loneliness and BPSD (behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia). This presentation introduces our several field trials with human-like robots. First, in field trials with Telenoid, developed with a minimal design approach, we show that we should design the interaction between older people with dementia and social robots in a new manner to facilitate positive engagement. We have to consider their ways of interaction are different from what is common among healthy adults due to their cognitive and socio-emotional decline and mental diseases. Next, even though introducing social robots is expected to reduce the burden on caregivers, we point out that introducing social robots often fails to successfully assist seniors with dementia, causing an increased burden on care staff. To realize a robotic system that more effectively supports the entire nursing home, we need to better understand the cognitive characteristics of older people with dementia and the tasks of caregivers. I will introduce our ongoing research to develop a baby-like robot called Hiro-chan for elderly care. I explain why we focus on a baby-like robot. Then, based on our two- and four-week field trials, I show how dementia patients and their care staff accept the baby-like robot and how designing the robot’s interaction strongly affects the nursing home. Finally, we propose that all stakeholder-centered care and a deep understanding of dementia patients are necessary for the robot to live in a nursing home. 


This paper will explore the concept of “seeds/needs collaboration” in assistive technologies and devices in Japan. In the recent decade, this concept has become a popular marketing strategy in technology inventions. “Needs”refers to the specific needs of the customers/users; in the context of assistive technologies, it is usually defined as the desires of people with disabilities or carers to overcome their everyday challenges. “Seeds” refers to what the companies and innovators can provide with their expertise and knowledge; in this context, those who belong to the seeds category are inventors, researchers at universities and institutions, companies in local areas that sell the products.

Since I started doing research in Japan on assistive technologies in Japan in 2019, I have been struck by the divide between the technological-based model of innovations that engineers have followed to develop high-tech robotics technologies, and the user-based model of designs that local voluntary groups have adopted to develop low-tech self-help devices. This gap has brought criticisms that high-tech care robots are just gimmicks but not practical devices for home use or even care facilities.

In this paper, I will use three case studies to examine how inventors, researchers and users try to bridge this gap. The first example is the Needs Ideas Forum (NIF) set up by researchers at National Rehabilitation Center to gather researchers and students in the fields of engineering, designs, and care work to collaborate on projects that are more suitable to the needs of people with disabilities. The second example is the Seeds/ Needs Matching Meeting set up by the Techno-aid Association. In these meetings, the Association invites makers to showcase their inventions and solicit feedback from users, who can attend these exhibitions for free. The third example is the J-Project where the local community members in Kanagawa try to come up with solutions for people who need self-help devices with their everyday chores by bringing together local companies and volunteers. In all three contexts, the participants find these platforms for communications and collaborations productive in making practical assistive devices for people with disabilities. The paper will evaluate these efforts and examine what challenges they are facing.

Saturday March 30
SESSION 3: Designing Care Robotics
9:00 - 10:45AM

Over the past three years, I have been working with computer science faculty and students, collaborators from industry, and older adults and their caregivers on developing a socially assistive robot that can help older adults reflect on and maintain their “ikigai” through repeated conversational interactions. Ikigai is a Japanese term that refers to a person’s sense of meaning and purpose in life. In the 2000s, it became a part of government policies in Japan oriented towards supporting the growing number of older adults in the country. Our project spanned researchers and participants in two countries – the US and Japan – in its attempt to identify how older adults describe what is meaningful to them and develop a robot that can help support their ongoing experience of meaningful activities and relationships.In this talk, I will reflect on the diverse meaning-making processes of participating older adults, care professionals, researchers, and others who serendipitously became involved in the research. Along with the perspectives of different stakeholders, the talk will also trace the translations of what is meaningful about the project across different national and institutional environments and use contexts, including academic and industry-based research teams and among care professionals. Through this, the talk will consider how robotics research provides an opportunity to bridge the meanings and experiences of different types of participants.  While many robotics projects see their expected benefits as occurring in some proximate future, I will discuss the need to provide immediate benefits to research participants and how that can be achieved through participatory design and research methods. By considering how robotics projects may provide an opportunity for bridging different social worlds , I will reflect on new ways to evaluate the meaning and impacts of assistive robotics projects.

Social robots are becoming popular in the world, in particular in Japan, because of the need to support people’s activities in real environments due to a super-aging society. To provide various robotics services to people in real environments, social robots need to connect with each other via a network to share information and collaborate among them. Related to this topic, we have been developing a cloud networked robotics system to enable multi-location robotic services for life support via controlling and coordinating multiple robotic companions. This presentation introduces several field trials with our cloud-networked robotics system in Japan using social robots that support people’s daily activities in real environments, such as a shopping mall, a nursing home, an elementary school, and so on. For example, in a shopping mall, our social robots provide different services, such as providing information and distributing flyers by using estimated peoples’ position information through an environmental sensor system. We also present social robots that are developed in ATR, such as Robovie and Geminoid; these robotics platforms are designed to interact socially with people and are used in basic research works in the context of human-robot interaction. In addition, we present a recent research topic in ATR, social touch interaction, which is one of the fundamental forms of communication in human-robot interaction. For this purpose, we developed Moffuly-II, which can hug people and rub their heads during a hug to reproduce affective interactions between intimate persons. The series of human-robot touch interaction studies showed positive effects such as improving motivation, encouraging self-disclosures, etc.

This study addresses the pressing need for enhanced accessibility in Extended Reality (XR), focusing on Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies, particularly for elderly users and those with disabilities. It identifies and analyzes a range of accessibility challenges within XR environments, including physical, cognitive, and sensory barriers. The paper evaluates existing solutions, highlighting gaps and areas for improvement.


Emphasizing the importance of standards like those set by IEEE, the research demonstrates how these guidelines can shape more accessible XR development. Through a number of case studies, it illustrates successful applications of accessible XR technologies. The study advocates for a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach, urging the involvement of developers, designers, end-users, and disability advocates in crafting inclusive XR experiences.


Looking ahead, the paper discusses potential technological advancements and design methodologies that could further bridge the accessibility gap in XR. This research aims to contribute to a future where XR technologies not only overcome barriers but also empower and enhance the lives of a broader range of users, advocating for a more inclusive approach in technology design.


SESSION 4: Developing New Assistive Technology
11:00am - 12:00PM

California State University Northridge (CSUN) has a long and impressive history of involvement in many different aspects of helping students with disabilities succeed. Established in 1964 on the campus, the National Center on Deafness was the first postsecondary program in the nation to provide paid sign language interpreters for deaf students. The entire curriculum of the university was opened to deaf and hard-of-hearing students since the 1970-1971 academic year. Every year, the university hosts an international conference on assistive technology. In this session, we will talk about our educational programs and ongoing research projects. We will share our experience of engaging more students in creating assistive technology, especially those who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. The research includes a systematic examination of how and why YouTubers disclose their challenges publicly on YouTube as people with disabilities increasingly use video-sharing platforms to share their experiences and concerns in their lives. We will discuss a preliminary grounded-theory analysis of 257 video clips made by YouTubers with disabilities.

SESSION 5: Comparing the Use of Elderly Assistive Technologies in Japan, Denmark and the US
1:00 - 3:00pm

Although the Japanese government has been encouraging the development and implementation of care technologies (or what it labels as “care robots”) for over a decade now, the kinds of sophisticated robots often celebrated in promotional materials are far from reaching commercial viability. In reality, it is the combination of monitoring technologies and care management software that has proven the most effective in advancing the government’s goal to “improve productivity” in eldercare, especially in long-term care facilities. Monitoring devices, or mimamori kiki, encompass sensors, cameras, and trackers that detect the elder’s vital information, sleep statuses, and movements. Notably, the discourse about such technologies often takes on a subtle spiritual undertone due to the image of ancestors as a presence that “watches over (mimamoru)” the living. Care management software, or kaigo gyōmu sohuto, digitize the data generated by various care technologies for long-term storage and analysis, thus helping care workers and managers save time. Additionally, such software can also facilitate the circulation of sensitive private data beyond facilities into the hands of corporations and government, in the form of “big data.” 

I argue that, in the name of cost saving and better quality of care, the eldercare industry is today transforming into the frontier of “surveillance capitalism.” According to Shoshana Zuboff (2019), surveillance capitalism is a large-scale collection and monetization of personal information mediated by digitization, datafication, and monitoring, grounded on “the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data.” Given that none of the people whose bodies and activities yield data are being directly compensated for it, I would suggest the situation is akin to the extraction of surplus value from some of the most vulnerable in our society.

Assistive technology has been recognized as a powerful tool for improving elderly care and addressing challenges due to an aging population. In light of this, municipalities in Denmark have actively worked towards implementing assistive technology in the healthcare sector to enhance the quality and efficiency of elderly care. Various technological solutions have been introduced, including sensors, telemedicine, and robots, to support healthcare personnel and improve the quality of life for elderly citizens.

The implementation of assistive technology in municipalities has shown promising results in terms of improving the working environment for healthcare personnel. Automated systems and digital tools have allowed them to streamline administrative tasks, freeing up more time for personalized care and support. This has contributed to increased job satisfaction and improved working conditions.

However, the implementation of assistive technology also presents challenges for the municipalities. One of the main challenges is the need for proper training and support for healthcare personnel to effectively utilize the technologies. Additionally, concerns about privacy, data protection, and ethical considerations must be addressed, to ensure the secure and responsible use of technologies. Despite these challenges, several municipalities in Denmark have made significant progress in implementing assistive technology. Many have observed positive outcomes, including improved quality of care, increased safety for elderly citizens, and enhanced independence. The use of assistive technology has also contributed to resource optimization and cost savings for municipalities in Denmark.

In conclusion, municipalities in Denmark have made commendable efforts in implementing assistive technology in the healthcare sector. While challenges persist, the positive impact on the work of healthcare personnel and the well-being of elderly citizens is evident. Continued collaboration and investment in training and infrastructure are essential for successful implementation and the realization of the full potential of assistive technology in elderly care in Denmark.

In Denmark, we strive to create dignified elderly care by adopting a citizen-centered approach and targeted efforts that focus on involving and empowering every citizen, taking into consideration their individual needs and preferences. The goal is for elderly citizens to maintain their independence, stay in control of their own lives, improve their quality of life, and remain healthy in their own homes for as long as possible.

Furthermore, the demographic development has prompted a focus on innovative solutions and assistive technology. The implementation of assistive technology plays a crucial role in meeting the needs of the growing elderly population. It enables remote monitoring, personalized care, and an improved quality of life for the elderly. 

Denmark, renowned for its progressive healthcare model, provides a unique perspective on the intersection of traditional care practices and assistive technology.The Danish healthcare landscape has been receptive to innovative solutions that enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of care services. Assistive technologies, ranging from smart home devices to telehealth applications, have found a meaningful place in care work settings. This integration not only streamlines daily tasks for caregivers but also empowers the elderly to live more independently. Denmark’s commitment to innovation is evident through its proactive approach to technological advancements in healthcare. Government initiatives and policies have facilitated the integration of assistive technology, ensuring that caregivers have access to the tools necessary for providing high-quality care.

Denmark’s focus on innovation within healthcare highlights a harmonious blend of traditional care values and modern technological solutions. The collaborative efforts between the state, healthcare professionals and technology developers contribute to a healthcare system that not only addresses the needs of an aging population but also sets a benchmark for global standards in elderly care and assistive technology integration, focusing on offering the elderly the best possible care.


This presentation will explore the current landscape of care robotics with a particular emphasis on developments within the United States. The first half of the discussion provides an overview of recent developments in care robotics for persons with disabilities or age-related limitations, highlighting global advancements in two main groups: stand-alone devices such as wheelchairs, social robots, etc. and wearable devices such as in exoskeletons or prostheses. Subsequently, attention is directed towards the research and implementation of these technologies in the United States. The presentation addresses the slower pace of robotic implementation in the U.S healthcare, attributing it to a previous historical emphasis on military and national security applications post-war. Nevertheless, as the US population ages, there is an increasing interest in the healthcare industry, which has resulted in a recent upsurge in the research and investment of care robots for both commercial and civilian use. This change is highlighted by the rise of eldercare-focused companies, as seen by inventions like ElliQ, a “companion driven by AI for older individuals.” Comparisons with other nations, such as Japan, show an interesting contrast to the U.S. experience. In Japan, a strong emphasis on economic growth and commercialization has fuelled rapid development and investment in robotic technologies. The ultimate goal of the presentation is to enable a more nuanced understanding of the factors influencing the development and application of care robotics in the US relative to other countries.

SESSION 6: Concluding Discussion
3:30 - 5:00pm



Co-sponsors: Abe Fellowship Program, Pomona College History Department, the Ena Thompson Fund, the Westergaard Fund, the Rockoff Student Research Grant, and the Pacific Basin Institute. For inquiries, please contact Angelina Chin (History) with questions at

Hahn 101
Pomona College, Claremont,
California, USA