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Future Of Ageing: How Robots Are Helping Us Care For The Elderly

“Patients said that having the robot felt like they had a companion in the house and they didn’t feel so alone.”

By: Adi Gaskell, Katerva’s Futurist 

As societies age the twin challenges of helping elderly people retain their health and independence for as long as possible at the same time as economic pressures diminish the number of people available to help enable that mean that technology is almost certain to play an increased role.

Smart homes are increasingly equipped with an array of features to support independent living for the elderly, including sensors to monitor the gait and weight of residents, cameras fitted into mirrors to monitor heart rate, facial expression and so on, an array of connected exercise equipment to allow residents to exercise and perform ‘pre-habilitation’ activities, and various other sensors to ensure the residents are fit and well.

Driven by early adoption in Japan, however, the technology that is most likely to be a common aid of older people in the near term is care robotics.  One of the forerunners in the western world has been IBM’s Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant (MERA), which they developed in partnership with Rice University.  As you might expect, the machine is equipped with IBM’s Watson, and aims to provide a range of support to their elderly patients.  It comes with the means to monitor the patient’s heart rate and mobility, while it can also engage in qualitative assessments of the patient.

The EU has also been working in this area via the GrowMeUp project, which involves a robot, known as GrowMu, that comes with an array of sensors and algorithms to allow it to adapt to changes in not only its environment but also the patient it’s working with.  The idea is for it to gain a detailed understanding of the habits and routines of the patient, and suggest ideas for how that could be improved upon.

“Adaptive learning and multi-objective decision-making algorithms work so the robot can learn from the user’s speech and behaviour patterns and recognise when circumstances require action,” the team explain.

The technology incorporates facial recognition and natural language processing to understand both the words and gestures of patients, and is designed to ‘grow’ alongside the patient, so their understanding of one another progresses over time.

General acceptance

Research from a deployment of robot carers in New Zealand highlights the promise of the technology.  The study found that participants reported a range of benefits from their new robot companions, from useful reminders to take their medication, to the rather more unexpected companionship provided by the machines.

“Patients said that having the robot felt like they had a companion in the house and they didn’t feel so alone,” the researchers explain. “An unexpected finding was the robot’s blinking lights – the lights enhanced the robot’s social presence which was reassuring to patients and helped them see when the surroundings were dark late at night or in the morning.”

This should perhaps not come as a huge surprise, as research from Penn State highlights how generally supportive of robotic technology older people are.  The study revealed that older people were only too happy to have robots helping them, but they wanted to maintain independence, without conceding too much control to their artificial aids.  The authors explain that the key to this generally positive relationship with robotic technology had its origins in the patient’s perceptions of the technology more generally.  If they had a broadly positive view of the tech, then they were happy to have it assist them, but if they didn’t, they tended to resist.

Such perceptions are increasingly being moulded by the portrayal of robots in popular culture.  Indeed, plays such as Spillikin go as far as portraying the relationship between an elderly dementia patient and their robotic carer, which has the personality of their spouse uploaded to it.

Lifelike companionship

The relatively lifelike nature of the robot in Spillikin is potentially a crucial feature for roboticists to consider.  Research from Friedrich Schiller University once again found that older people were not unduly concerned by the presence of robots in their care facility, but were especially supportive when the robots had arms and legs, facial expressions, and a generally human-like appearance.

“In the tests, the older participants made a clearly positive assessment of the machines – and were even more open-minded towards them than the younger comparison group,” the researchers explain. “In the older participants, we were unable to confirm a scepticism towards robots that is frequently assumed in science.”

In addition to physical similarities, workers are also researching ways to make robots culturally aware so that they can operate in a range of diverse environments and respond with sensitivity to whatever they encounter.  Early results suggest that robots with such a capability are more accepted than those without.

“Aside from day-to-day care, loneliness is also a heart-breaking issue. With many families now living oceans apart, it’s estimated that 200,000 older people in the UK go a month or longer without having a conversation with friends or family,” says Laetitia Cailleteau, Global Lead for Conversational AI at Accenture. “But technology like this can bring people together when they otherwise may not be able to. Not only can users video-call their families, it can also find local events to encourage users to join more social activities.”

It may be a few years until robot carers are a mainstream presence in our care facilities, but initial results not only show the progress being made from a technological perspective, but also highlight the general willingness of older people to have such technology in their lives.  Such acceptance is undoubtedly a major hurdle that the industry has already overcome in the adoption of carer robots, and will smooth the passage for the technology to be scaled up in the coming years.

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