investment viewpoints

Robotics and an aging population

Robotics and an aging population

There is a surprisingly strong correlation between ageing and robotics. It turns out that countries with a young population tend to have few robots, while countries with an older population show a much higher number of robots per number of inhabitants1.

Two of the countries with the highest density of robots are Japan and Germany, both of which have among the oldest workforces in the world. In contrast, the UK and France, both of which are ageing more slowly compared to other developed countries, are much less advanced in their adoption of robots. 

Robots are also sometimes simply better at very difficult tasks than we humans.

There are two reasons robots come in handy in an older population. The first reason is that robots can replace human labour. In many developed countries, the number of retirees is growing up to three times faster than the number of younger people. It does not help that the baby boomer generation - those born in the twenty year period following the end of World War 2 - is roughly twice as numerous as the generations before or after them. Replacing them is no easy feat, both in terms of numbers and skills, and tends to pave the way for automation and the rise of industrial robots. The second reason is that a growing number of older people creates entirely new markets for a wide range of new robots.


Japan as a think-tank

In Japan there are already not enough young people today to care for a growing number of elderly. For the first time last year, the country counted one person over the age of 70 for every five inhabitants. Meanwhile, the average age of caretakers in a hospital, nursing home, or home setting is approaching the mid-40s. Many of them having an increasingly hard time lifting frail and sometimes heavy patients out of bed and into a bathtub or a wheelchair. This is why several companies are developing so-called exoskeletons, full-body suits of electronic muscle that can assist, amplify and sometimes even anticipate a human’s movement. The next stage is giving the task over to a machine entirely. In fact, roughly one in ten nursing homes in Japan are already employing simple robotic lifting systems. The most popular lifting robot looks like a giant teddy bear and is called ‘Robear’. ‘Robear’ is not alone. Robot dogs like Sony’s Aibo, first launched twenty years ago, is an increasingly popular choice to provide companionship to patients with memory loss, as are its pals ‘Paro’, a furry seal, and ‘Buddy’, a wide-eyed little fantasy robot.


Innovating in order to reduce cost

As investors, we are looking for companies that have staying power over the long run. High quality companies who are good stewards of capital. Companies who are good citizens, in that they show respect for all their stakeholders. And companies who have come up with ideas and actions to meet some of the challenges associated with megatrends such as an ageing population. 

One of the key challenges that our societies face is the rising burden of healthcare cost that comes with a higher incidence of dependence and costly age-related conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. And while many investors cast healthcare as a sector that stands to benefit from an ageing population and rising patient numbers, we think that is too simplistic. In fact, we are convinced that there will be an increasing disparity between the winners and losers within the sector. We believe that only those companies able to provide better patient outcomes, improved treatment access, and reduce the overall cost for the system will be likely to survive in the medium term. 


Technology and robotics to the fore

Japan may be at the forefront in inviting robots into humans’ daily lives, but other countries are likely to follow suit. The aging population megatrend is still in its in early innings. So are the many ways in which technology could play a role in it, helping both to improve the lives of the elderly and to reduce the strain and cost of caring for them. We think that new challenges require new solutions and robotics is one field where we see the unfolding of a number of exciting innovations and investment opportunities.

Beyond Aibo and Paro, you might think of other service robots, helping older people stay independent for longer. In people’s own homes, robots can take on chores like vacuum cleaning, washing dishes, helping prepare simple meals or put objects back in their assigned places. Pushing out the age at which someone has to move into a nursing home would score an important win on quality of life and cost at the same time. 

But our little machine helpers can do more than pick up crumbs. Surgical robots are simply better at certain complex tasks than humans are. A robot arm tends to have a wider range of motion and dexterity than the human hand. It can make more precise and smaller incisions, leading to minimal invasiveness. Some robots that have been used for years in general surgery, mostly for procedures in elderly patients. With a minimally invasive procedure, the patient is likely to recover more quickly and shorten their hospital stay, saving significant cost. Today, robotic systems are also used in orthopedic procedures such as knee or hip replacements, where they improve the reproducibility of the procedure, reduce the error rate and often remove the need for costly revision surgery. And with 70 being the new 50 and today’s young retirees expecting to be more physically active for longer, this requires more complex and flexible implants that a human hand is simply less apt to place reliably.


1Daron Acemoglu, MIT Economics, July 2018

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