Robots that can chat, find misplaced glasses, draw aeroplanes and play with your children are attracting thousands of visitors during an expo in Tokyo as Japan adapts to changes in society. Robots, such as the sound-sensitive Chapit, answer simple questions and even joke with people to help the solitary fight loneliness and stay alert in old age. “Many older people in Japan live alone and have no one to talk to,” said Kazuya Kitamura, a representative of the expo organiser. “Communication robots accompany people and don't mind listening to the same stories over and over again.”

While Chapit, a relatively simple robot, managed to attract a corporate partner, many researchers, such as Kiyoshi Matsumoto, a professor at the University of Tokyo, struggle to attract sponsors for more expensive projects. Matsumoto's “Personal Mobility Robot”, equipped with four cameras and a sensor to recognise the user's centre of gravity, is designed to help elderly move around without pressing buttons, using joysticks or rotating wheels as in traditional wheelchairs. The robot can also help find misplaced spectacles by identifying them with a sensor. “We have developed a robot that can assist many people, but because of the high cost, we still haven't found a sponsor,” said Matsumoto, who added that the cost of the machine, if mass-produced, would be comparable to that of a compact car.

“In the current economic environment there are few companies willing to invest in such a costly project,” he said. Other robots, such as the award-winning “DiGRO” can support busy parents who have little time to play with their children. The robot can use the Internet to find a simple image and then draw pictures, keeping children company while parents work. Japan has one of the world's fastest-ageing societies and the government predicts that by 2050 the proportion of people over 65 will reach 40 percent.

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