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Robotics and AI Assist in Caring for the Elderly

As Mick Jagger famously sang, “What a drag it is getting old”. Though with a net worth of about $360 million and holding court in the pantheon of rock-n-roll gods, Mick Jagger is probably greying about as well as anyone could at age 74. He certainly will have nothing to worry about when the day comes that he can no longer do the rooster strut; Jagger can afford the best elder care money can buy. Most of us probably won’t have the financial means to hire a team of 20-something-year-old nurses in short, black latex skirts to take care of us when we become dirty old men. The best most of us can hope for is not to be locked in a closet and left to stew in our own feces. Seriously: One in three nursing homes in the United States have been cited for elderly abuse. That’s why we’re all for robots and artificial intelligence swooping in to take as many of these jobs as possible.

Surprisingly, this subset of healthcare is predicted to remain automation-proof in the short term. That’s the conclusion from the bright minds at CB Insights, which recently put out a report on the 10 million jobs in the United States that will go away in the next five to 10 years. At the top of the list were cooks, cleaners and warehouse workers. On the flip side, nurses and health aides have little to worry about from Rosie the Robot for now, according to CB Insights, noting that “dynamic decision making in unpredictable environments make these patient-facing jobs hard to automate”.

Credit: CB Insights

In the United States, 1.5 million people are employed as nursing aides and orderlies and another three million work as home health aides and personal care aides. These folks get paid as if this were more of a hobby than an occupation, with median wages ranging from $22,000 to $26,000 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, the BLS projects that the home health and personal care aides category alone will add more than a million new jobs in the next decade. That’s because the United States, along with the rest of the world, is getting older. About 962 million people on the planet are aged 60 or older today. That’s expected to more than double to 2.1 billion by 2050 and more than triple to 3.1 billion at the end of this century, according to the United Nations.

In Japan, famous for the longevity of its people, their endearing use of engrish, and their fetish for girls in Catholic school uniforms, the care of the elderly is a particularly acute problem. A third of the Japanese population is reportedly above the age of 60, and the number of people over 90 years of age just topped two million for the first time. Add in a rapidly shrinking population, and you have a country where you have more people eating the early bird special than not. So it’s no surprise that Japan is leading the world in robotic elder care, offering a glimpse into our geriatric future.

Pet Peeve

Apparently that future includes a lot of robotic pets. Again, that comes from our friends at CB Insights, in a recent dive into how robotic pets can help the elderly with simple health care needs, such as reminders on when to take medication, and even provide companionship. While we always assumed the most famous robotic canine was actually K9, a faithful robotic pet to time-travelling Dr. Who, CB Insights notes that Sony’s robotic dog Aibo sold about 150,000 units between 1999 and 2006.

One of the original robotic pets was Sony’s Aibo. Inset: K9 from Dr. Who.

The latest generation of robotic pets, CB Insights reports, is less metal and more fur. Hasbro offers a line of cats and dogs under the awkwardly named brand Joy For All Companion Pets. These furry robots react to touches with pet-like movements and respond to sound with Bark Back technology, whatever that is. Companion Pets retail starting at $99.  

You’ve heard of therapy dogs. How about therapy seals? A robotic therapy seal? Developed by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), PARO does more than just wag its tail, er, flipper. It has five kinds of sensors that it uses to perceive its environment: tactile, light, audition, temperature and posture sensors. The posture sensor, for example, alerts PARO that it is being held. The robotic seal has even been the subject of scientific research to gauge its effectiveness for different kinds of therapy, including a 2016 study that showed PARO could reduce stress and anxiety in patients with dementia.

Credit: Yukai Engineering

In the same vein, a small Japanese startup called Yukai Engineering is marketing a robotic pillow with a tail as a therapy device. Qoobo, the “Tailed Cushion That Heals Your Heart”, is available through the company’s Kickstarter campaign, which has raised more than $60,000. As far as we can tell, this advanced piece of technology wags its tail. Often.

Companion Robots

We first introduced you to ELLI•Q from Israeli-based Intuition Robotics in our feature on seven cool robots earlier this year. Since then, the startup has taken in a ton more money to bring total funding to $20 million. Backers include Toyota AI Ventures, one of the many emerging VC funds focused on artificial intelligence. ELLI•Q is sort of like what we imagined Siri would actually be like by now. The company, founded in 2015, describes the miniature robot as an “active aging companion” that provides stimulation through online games and video chats, as well as a way to help older folks navigate the complexities of the digital age. ELLI•Q also keeps an eye on its owner by suggesting physical activities to avoid spending too much time in front of the TV, as well as reminding him or her about appointments or when to take medication. Using machine learning, she learns the preferences, behaviour and personality of her owner. That’s better than some couples who have been married for 50 years.

We think this has something to do with a robot. Credit: Intuition Robotics

The company is currently looking for volunteers to help ELLI•Q learn even more.

Founded in 2009, CT Asia Robotics in Thailand makes a line of elder care robots called Dinsow. The Dinsow mini is the latest iteration. Dinsow mini remains perched next to the user’s bed and can help with video calls (as shown below), stream music, display pictures and play games.

Credit: CT Asia Robotics

Dinsow even has a “dementia” function where it plays memory exercises with the user, showing pictures of different people and asks the player to match the face with a name.

Yet another home companion robot for the elderly is Rudy from Fairfax, Virginia-based INF Robotics. Shaped like a robot but mostly just a screen with wheels, Rudy hit the market in 2014. It provides two-way communication between a senior and caregiver, who can also take control of the robot remotely. Rudy gives medication reminders and provides some rudimentary social interaction.

AI-911

“I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up.” Some of you may remember that catch phrase from a 1980s commercial for a medical alarm device in which an elderly woman falls and uses a pendant to call for help. Stockholm-based Aifloo has raised about $7.5 million for a version that uses artificial intelligence to monitor the wellbeing of the user. The system includes a wristband with sensors that is  powered by AI, which can reportedly detect things like falls, as well as changes in eating behavior and sleep patterns. The device sends an alert to the caregiver that something is wrong. The device can also track things like activity levels and location of the wearer.

Home Visit

OhmniLabs out of Santa Clara, California, has had a couple of undisclosed funding rounds to date to build out its telepresence robot. Looking like a giant selfie stick on a Segway, the OhmniLabs robot allows users to connect to it remotely, using either a computer or mobile device to drive the machine and interact with an elderly loved one at their home. It’s like Skyping but the user can “interact” through the robot by moving around independently. Here’s a view of the driving interface:

Credit: OhmniLabs

A recent story in Forbes says the startup can build one robot per day using 3D printing. OhmniLabs is marketing the robot for both families and healthcare providers.

Conclusion on Elder Care with Robotics and AI

The need for technology to help care for an aging population is self-evident. The question still remains whether the answer lies in robots with frozen, creepy grins on over-sized heads. Certainly cultures like the Japanese have embraced robots in all forms and fashions but most of us haven’t gotten past trusting our Roomba to properly clean the floor let alone take care of grandpa. Still, if the choice comes down to a headless robotic pet pillow and a 350-pound orderly with a smack habit, maybe we should let the machines take over the world after all.

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