As ageing population grows, so do robotic health aides

Scientists are experimenting with drones and robots to help elderly people care for themselves at home

Dr Naira Hovakimyan of the University of Illinois with a small drone that may eventually be able to carry out household tasks, like retrieving a bottle of medicine, for older adults. Photograph: Daniel Acker/The New York Times

Dr Naira Hovakimyan of the University of Illinois with a small drone that may eventually be able to carry out household tasks, like retrieving a bottle of medicine, for older adults. Photograph: Daniel Acker/The New York Times

 

The ranks of older and frail adults are growing rapidly in the developed world, raising alarms about how society is going to help them take care of themselves in their own homes.

Naira Hovakimyan has an idea: drones.

Hovakimyan acknowledged the idea might seem off-putting to many, but she believes drones will not only be safe, but will become an everyday fixture in elder care within a decade or two.

“I’m convinced that within 20 years drones will be today’s cellphones,” she says.

Her research is just one example of many approaches being studied to use technology to help aging people.

Even though fully functioning robot caregivers may be a long way off, roboticists and physicians predict that a new wave of advances in computerised, robotic and internet-connected technologies will be available in coming years to help older adults stay at home longer.

“Loneliness is at epidemic levels among elders today,” says Juliet Holt Klinger, senior director of dementia care and programs at Brookdale Senior Living, one of the largest providers of assisted living and home care in the US.

Brookdale is using a variety of internet-connected services to help aging clients stay more closely connected with family and friends. Holt Klinger says there is growing evidence that staying connected, even electronically, offsets the cognitive decline associated with aging. “We have story after story of reconnection with families through Skype,” she adds.

For all the promising ideas, however, sceptics also note that many ideas are “technologies looking for a solution” that inevitably fail the test of practicality.

“We all get really excited on the upside, and then we go through this trough of disillusionment,” says Laurie Orlov, a business analyst who began the Aging in Place Technology Watch blog in 2008.

Even so, examples of robotic and artificial-intelligence-derived technologies that will be commercially available in the next decade include intelligent walkers, smart pendants that track falls and “wandering”, room and home sensors that monitor health status, balancing aids, virtual and robotic electronic companions, and even drones.

In her lab, Hovakimyan has begun experimenting with small and large drones.

She refers to them as “Bibbidi Bobbidi Bots,” borrowing a phrase from the Cinderella movie, to make them seem less intimidating. In December 2015, in the Nicer Robotics laboratory at the University of Illinois, researchers began experimenting with an Oculus Rift virtual reality viewer to show people how it might feel to be close to a small drone. She believes drones could ultimately be used to perform all manner of household chores, like reaching under a table to grab an object, cleaning chandeliers and weeding the lawn.

Devise solutions

Many others are trying to devise solutions, as well. In a crowded four-room laboratory in south Seattle, the former Microsoft software designer and executive Tandy Trower is experimenting with a 4ft-tall rolling robot he calls Robby.

With cameras, radar, microphone, speaker, a tablet interface and a movable tray, Robby may someday be able to serve as a mobile companion and even perform some light chores.

Trower says the robot, now a prototype in his Hoaloha Robotics laboratory, would be able to monitor the health of its human companion and assist with tasks like keeping track of medicines. Its screen could also be used for video conferences with physicians and other healthcare providers. He says the science-fiction future of elder-care robots is closer than many people believe.

“Rather than seeing the train in the distance, we’re seeing the light shining in our face right now,” he says.

Toyota has said that it will spend $1 billion (1920 million) to establish a new research laboratory adjacent to Stanford University to focus on artificial intelligence, underscoring the company’s view that it should be added to cars to make human drivers safer rather than to replace them. The hope is that such technologies will make it possible for aging people to drive safely longer.

“Driver assistance will turn cars into elder-care robots in a very positive sense,” says Rodney Brooks, a pioneering roboticist and a former director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. “In the United States, when you can’t drive any longer, you’ve lost your independence.”

The need for such technology will grow sharply, given the broad demographic shifts sweeping through the world’s population. An aging population will place enormous burdens on the world’s healthcare system by 2050, according to demographers. Already, for the first time in history, 14 per cent of the world’s population is older than 65, a sharp contrast with the 9.1 per cent of the population that is less than 5 years old.

Globally, the number of people 60 and over is expected to more than double by 2050 and triple by 2100. The number of people 80 and above is expected to double by 2050 and increase more than sevenfold by the end of the century.

Despite a patchwork of research and some commercial products, the United States appears to be lagging Japan and Europe in developing solutions.

China reached out more than a decade ago to Eric Dishman, an Intel scientist who has focused on developing technologies to assist older adults. Age Friendly City Initiative “Now I have a team in China working with third parties, collaborating on their Age Friendly City Initiative,” Dishman says. That has led to the installation of sensors in homes to monitor as many as 100,000 people.

The Intel China project uses so-called machine-learning techniques, charting patterns of behaviour for caregivers.

“Your daily patterns are a vital sign,” Dishman adds.

In addition to smart-home sensors and mobile robots, there are a variety of other efforts to add stationary robots to provide everything from coaching to communications to companionship.

Catalia Health, a San Francisco-based design company, has introduced the Mabu personal healthcare companion, an interactive robot about the size of a coffee pot. The system, which has a cartoonish form, listens and speaks and holds a touch-tablet interface. It is designed to act both as a healthcare coach and to provide a way to stay in touch with doctors’ offices and pharmacies.

“My approach is, ‘Here are the challenges we see in healthcare. What is the right technology?’” says Cory Kidd, chief executive of the start-up firm. “Robots happen to be great for helping with behaviour.”

A more profound question is whether robots or virtual assistants, in tandem with internet communications, can help forestall the effects of aging, like dementia. Isolation is one of the most vexing problems for older adults, and there is evidence that human contact can postpone intellectual decline.

A study published last summer in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia found that a group of both healthy and mildly cognitively impaired people in their 70s and 80s who engaged in face-to-face daily online conversations for six weeks showed significant improvements in cognitive skills compared with a control group.

“It is not possible to simply tell people to go out and get more friends, so the idea here was to provide a meaningful and frequent dose of social engagement,” says Kaye, the Oregon Health & Science University neurologist, who helped organise the study.

Internet, tablet and smartphone systems such as grandPad, a simplified tablet for older adults, and CareAngel, a telephone system to help younger family members stay connected, are emerging to help with care and staving off isolation.

The ultimate test for all these ideas will be whether people will want to use them.

At a conference on new elder-care technologies, Cynthia Breazeal, an MIT Media Lab roboticist, showed off Jibo, an internet-connected tabletop robot with a round swivelling screen that portrays a friendly robotic face.

The concept did not thrill everyone in the large lunchtime audience.

During a question-and-answer session at the end of the presentation, a 91-year-old woman said, “If Jibo were my last friend, I would be very depressed.”

- ( New York Times News Service)

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