Innovations Accelerate in Robotic Eldercare

The 2012 movie Robot & Frank features a humanoid robot companion designed to help older adults struggling with health challenges. In the movie, the robot not only helps improve the leading character’s physical health, but also provides companionship and vital emotional connections. But the movie also explores the potential controversies and discomfort that can arise when technology replaces the human touch.

Not far from Hollywood, the Glendale-based organization Front Porch recently concluded a six-month study of robotic care among memory care residents within seven of its retirement communities. Its featured robot, PARO, is created in likeness of a baby harp seal, and was invented by Japanese engineer and MIT AgeLab research fellow Dr. Takanori Shibata.

 

"Front Porch has been using PARO very effectively at their Summer House memory care neighborhoods," Shibata said. "Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing documented 920 instances of PARO intervention and the resulting therapeutic effects on older adults with dementia.”

In fact, the Front Porch study showed promising results, including a 59% reduction in anxious behaviors and a 97% increase in social behaviors and connections. "We continue to be astounded by the impact on mood, social interaction and communication," said Davis Park, director of the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing.

As senior living communities and care facilities struggle with labor costs, shortages, and high turnover, a growing number are entertaining the notion that robotics may be part of the answer. Meanwhile, older adults seeking to age in place in their own homes will have more robotic solutions available to them in the years ahead. Worldwide, manufacturers sold 4,416 elderly assistance robots in 2014, according to the International Federation of Robotics in Frankfurt, which also projects sales will total 32,500 units from 2015 through 2018.

In Europe, an international research initiative called Robot-Era earlier this year concluded the world’s largest real-life trial of robot aides for the elderly, including senior populations in Italy and Sweden. The European Commission is now investing hundreds of millions of euros to foster innovation in robotic eldercare.

Experts in China project robots will begin to play a critical role in the care of China's elderly this decade. The social welfare center in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, began using Ah Tie robots in May to act as caretakers and companions in its senior living communities. The robots are equipped with two 5-megapixel cameras to monitor patients—and can also sing, dance, and carry on a basic conversation. According to Zhao Huyue, deputy director of the center, Ah Tie robots both support human healthcare workers and enrich the social lives of residents. “Robots may be able to help with bathing and other basic tasks in the near future, but we must also pay attention to family relationships and emotional bonds,” Zhao said.

But Japan remains the epicenter of the robotic eldercare revolution. With some startling innovations such Toshiba’s android, ChihiraAico, which strongly resembles a 32-year old Japanese woman, and Honda’s humanoid robot Asimo, breakthroughs are a necessity in a society burdened by rapid population aging and rampant shortages in eldercare workers. In 2015, Softbank’s four-foot tall Pepper robots went on sale $1,600 each—and the whole supply of 1,000 robots sold out in less than a minute.

Pushing other boundaries, Japan’s Cyberdyne—a name far more reminiscent of Terminator than Robot & Frank—has developed a motorized exoskeleton that can provide autonomous motion assistance for the elderly or disabled.

 

In fact, recent technology innovations will likely vault the robotic eldercare to new levels. "Chinese enterprises who specialized in voice recognition, semantics understanding and image identification have performed very well in recent years," says Zhuang Yongjun, chief technology officer of Qihan Technology Co Ltd.

 

Not everyone is entirely enthusiastic about the possibilities. "We have robots coming into areas like elder care, or children's toys. It seems that the way people treat them like a living thing might raise some concerns about the emotional manipulation of people, of human dignity,” says Kate Darling, a robotics researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 

Such concerns will be an important part of the conversation as the robotic eldercare industry gains momentum. And the race has officially started. “The commission has very clear goals around the use of robotics in the field of active and healthy aging,” says Andy Bleaden, who evaluates projects seeking funding from the European Commission. “The EC is putting money on the table is to get ours to market faster than our competitors.”

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