Susanne Keohane, senior technologist at IBM Research, says the project addresses a growing need for technology that helps aging populations preserve both their independence and their overall health, while also avoiding disruption in their daily lives.
“If you slap an Apple Watch on an 88-year-old, that’s not feasible for most 88-year-olds,” Keohane tells Business Insider. “That’s just not in their world.”
Keohane says technology must be wholly intuitive for senior citizens to use it on a regular basis. As designers say, it must be “frictionless.” IBM has tried to achieve that goal by developing sensors that detect changes in motion, scent, and audio, all of which could indicate a potentially dangerous scenario for elders living alone.
The prototype robot for this solution is the IBM Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant (IBM MERA), which the company has been testing at its “Aging in Place” lab based in Austin, Texas. The lab was designed to mimic experiences seniors have in their own home.
Sensors can detect when the stove’s burners are on, or when a person has fallen down. Even in its prototype stage, MERA is equipped with cameras to read facial expressions, sensors to capture vital signs, and Watson-powered speech recognition to know when to call for help.
MERA isn’t available to consumers yet. Keohane says the company still has a lot of research to do before it begins to think about bringing the robot to market. IBM also wants the robot to enter each person’s home already chock-full of important information, and to do that requires collecting it first.
“In the near-term, it would be more of the ambient sensors in the home starting to gather all of this data,” Keohane says. Then a robot could come in and download those batches of data to “learn” about its resident.
Keohane suspects a country like Japan, where aging has become a national concern, will be the first to adopt such a robot (in fact, robots for the elderly are already popping up there). For the first time since data was collected in 1899, Japan saw fewer than 1 million births in 2016. Meanwhile, the country has millions of seniors, 65,000 of whom over the age of 100.
Where young people are missing, robots could step in to save the day.