Robots could address both cost and manpower issues by performing many of the daily tasks that can help seniors remain independent longer, says Dan Siewiorek, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Quality of Life Technology (QoLT) Center. “We’re burning out caregivers because they need to be on call 24 hours a day,” Siewiorek says. “They provide billions of dollars of free care, and our current caretaking systems aren’t going to be able to handle the amount of care that will be required in the future.”
Enter HERB. Developed by QoLT and funded in part by the National Science Foundation, HERB (or Home Exploring Robotic Butler) is part of a multibillion dollar global push, financed by governments, academic institutions and the private sector, to develop robots for personal use. Its creation could rewrite the book on eldercare.
The mother of invention
Nowhere is the need for caregivers more pressing than in Japan, where people over the age of 65 already make up more than 25 percent of the population. As is the custom, seniors are primarily cared for by family members, but by 2050, the ratio of people over the age of 60 to those under the age of 60 will be less than 2 to 1, according to the United Nations Population Division.
Covering that shortfall in caregiving has become a top priority for the Japanese government, which has made funding the research and development of service robots a top economic priority. In fact, over the next two decades, the government forecasts that the market for “care service” robots will climb to $3.7 billion, compared to an estimated $155 million today.
Leading that growth will be companies such as Honda, which continues to refine its robot, ASIMO (an acronym for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility). Honda engineers began working on a walking robot in 1986. Today, ASIMO can run, walk on uneven slopes and surfaces, turn, climb stairs, and reach for and grasp objects. It can understand and respond to simple voice commands. With cameras for eyes, ASIMO can recognize faces and map out its environment to avoid running into obstacles. The emphasis today, though, is on developing additional capabilities for ASIMO that can help someone confined to a bed or wheelchair.
The Japanese market for “care service” robots will climb to $3.7 billion over the next 20 years, according to government forecasts.
Of course, building a robot like ASIMO for every person who needs care would be prohibitively expensive, Siewiorek says. At QoLT, HERB is a platform on which researchers can test the efficacy of a wide variety of software and other technologies being developed to perform specific functions, such as recognizing faces or objects and helping users with coordination. These technologies can then be incorporated into task-specific products. For example, grasping technology could be built into the arm of a wheelchair to help users reach for items in the refrigerator or a kitchen cabinet. Improvements in maneuverability can help a patient move from a wheelchair to a bed without requiring a lot of physical strength from the caregiver.
Engineers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory developed a robotic wheelchair that understands basic voice commands and is being tested in a Boston-area clinical care facility. A Japanese firm created a “smart” walker that incorporates robotics to help the elderly negotiate rough terrain, and another robotics company engineered a bed that converts into a wheelchair.
Researchers also have been experimenting with so-called “nurse” robots that would have enough artificial intelligence to work as health care aides. In 2015, the National Science Foundation granted funding for a University of Texas project to create “adaptive robotic nursing assistants.” The university received the grants to develop two types of assistants: “sitter” robots that take vital signs and observe patients; and “walker” robots that could move medical equipment and help patients walk. The proposed robots will be equipped with skin sensors that can anticipate nurses’ needs and automate routine tasks, such as updating patient charts.
A European consortium of governments, universities and corporations has developed nurse robot prototypes that are already being tested in hospitals to help with such tasks as lifting patients, taking vital signs and delivering medications or lab results. In Japan, the government has begun plans to open 10 research centers across the country dedicated to developing nursing care robots. In the future, researchers expect robots to assume even more patient care responsibility, such as making diagnoses and administering medications.
Challenges and opportunities
One of the challenges in using robots for eldercare is that, well, they’re robots. Researchers are studying the human-robotic interaction to understand how people would react to being cared for by a machine, Siewiorek says. To encourage acceptance, one Japanese firm designed its robot to look like a teddy bear, albeit a shiny metallic one. A U.S. company is working on a robot that looks like a gumdrop to work with autistic children.
Another challenge is instilling uniquely human traits such as empathy, ethics and cognitive reasoning into a machine. Still, while futuristic ideals of personal droids anticipating our every need are still a long way off, robotic technology is already being successfully commercialized in a number of new products.
Siewiorek likens the robotics industry to designing a self-driving car. Instead of having to wait for the entire set of technologies to work, cars have had individual technologies injected over time: power steering, intermittent wiper blades, an automatic braking system, lane-departure warning, blind-spot detectors and self-parking, for example. “I believe the same gradual injection of technology will happen with personal care robotics,” Siewiorek says.
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