Technological innovations designed to help seniors live longer, more fulfilling lives are starting to catch on—everything from companion robots to smart devices that can help monitor, alert, track and support our growing senior community, whether they are living in smart senior communities or in their own homes.
In part 1 we addressed why the timing is right, we defined the Internet of Things (IoT) and explored several new products available to seniors. In this post, we’ll take a look at how robots are helping seniors, other technology that is on the way, and we will touch on some of the ethical challenges that accompany this type of technology.
Virtual Home Assistants (Robots)
Many seniors live alone, or with a spouse or partner who is also likely to be elderly, and require daily assistance as well as companionship. Virtual assistants, like Israeli-based Intuition Robotics’ Elli•Q, are beginning to meet this need. Elli•Q interacts with seniors by voice and touchscreens, and helps them stay connected with family and friends via social media and video chat. She can also help patients remember to take medications, take notes and remind them about care providers’ medical advice. Using machine learning, she learns the preferences, behavior and personality of her owner. A video demonstration can be viewed here.
Ryan, a companion robot being developed by researchers at the University of Denver, is specifically designed to assist those struggling with Alzheimer’s. In addition to being equipped with cognitive games that help keep the brain active, Ryan can recognize who it interacts with and carry on conversations. Designed to be empathetic to support people socially and emotionally, it can read people’s emotions through their facial expressions and then mimic back. Researchers are currently evaluating how seniors interact with Ryan. The goal is to have the robot mass produced and made available to consumers through a subscription basis.
Recognizing the huge senior market, Hasbro, the toy company, is offering Companion Pets. The furry, robotic cats and dogs react to touches with pet-like movements and respond to sound.
Other Tech Coming Soon
A wearable device is being developed by Opnwatr.IO that could provide MRI-level details in the bodies or brains of wearers. For seniors, this would mean not having to frequently undergo expensive procedures and receiving more knowledge about their conditions without the discomfort of being surrounded by large scanning machines.
Another is Gyenno “Smart Cup” for Parkinson’s patients, which would allow them to use cups independently despite tremors they may be experiencing. Sensors detect and help counteract the action of tremors to keep the cup steady. Similar spoon and fork products, although not necessarily IoT devices, are also available.
Watch for smart devices that will help with daily living activities when needed, such as cooking and, if robot manipulation capabilities improve, dressing and toileting. Automated transportation will support continued independence and expanded social interaction. Better hearing aids and visual devices will lessen the effects of hearing and vision loss, improving both safety and social interaction. Intelligent walkers, wheelchairs, and exoskeletons will extend the range of activities for infirm individuals.
Concerns and Ethical Hurdles
While the technology is exciting and promising, there must be a balance between a person’s privacy versus tracking their safety and social engagement. Researchers and consumers will want to maximize the technology without having unintended consequences, so finding the right role for the machines is key. For example, because AI robots can become very engaging, they could encourage more social isolation instead of less. Instead of creating the kind of emotional dependency that social media sometimes does, they need to complement human relationships.
With elder care becoming a fast-approaching problem worldwide, most major robotics research institutes and universities across the world, specifically Europe and developed Asia, have their own elder care robot projects. But before robots can completely replace human counterparts, some ethical hurdles will need to be addressed. UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Discovery states that the preservation of human dignity and privacy also fall under ethically-uncharted territory for robots.
For example, if a robot is tasked to remind a patient to take medicine, the intelligence needs to be aware of what to do if a patient refuses; the patient may be refusing for a legitimate reason. If a robot is tasked with preventing obesity, how would it handle taking away high-calorie foods from an elder? If a caregiver uses a remote-controlled robot to restrain an elder, there could be moral and legal issues.
It is, absolutely, an interesting time in which we find ourselves. While technology continues to develop, present-day AI capabilities seem to be focused on home companion products. In the future, we will likely see more AI integration for elder care robotics designed to improve quality of life and independence, monitor health and wellness, and provide personalized companions and treatments.