Elderly and disabled people who live alone but need help with daily tasks have two choices: Either hire in-home help or move into an assisted living facility. But in a few years, or maybe less, they'll have a third choice: Purchase a robot that will help care for them at home. With an eye to the aging over-60 population, which is set to grow by more than 50 percent worldwide in the next 15 years, IBM has set up an "Aging in Place" research lab in Austin and begun creating technology to help aging seniors stay in their homes.

One of the first results of that research is the Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant (or MERA), developed in conjunction with Rice University. Home robots are already becoming a thing, but MERA takes eldercare to a new level. It may be able to read vital signs by observing a person's face, use accelerometers to determine if someone has fallen, atmospheric sensors to determine if, for instance, a stove has been left on, and use Watson-powered speech recognition to converse with people and answer questions.

As Susanne Keohane, senior technologist at IBM Research, told Business Insider, in-home technology for elders and the disabled needs to be transparent and completely intuitive--devices such as today's smartwatches pose too much of a challenge. IBM isn't planning on making MERA available to consumers anytime soon; the robot remains a research project for now, a prototype of what a device of the future may look like as the world prepares to care for a growing aging population with a shrinking cohort of health workers.

Japanese lead the way.

But other eldercare robots, or "carebots" should be on the market much sooner. Perhaps fortunately for the rest of the world, Japan, one of the most technologically advanced nations on the planet also has the dubious distinction of having the oldest demographics: 20 percent of Japanese are over 65, compared to a worldwide average of 13 percent. And so Japan is a trailblazer in creating in-home technology to care for its aging population and carebots--set to become a $17 billion industry in the next three years or so--are in various stages of development and market release.

Honda's ASIMO robot, widely viewed as the most advanced two-legged model, has existed in one form or another for over 15 years and makes frequent appearances around the world though it hasn't come to the general market yet. But Honda says it was created with the aim to offer help to those who need it. Newer robots take on the most difficult task of assisting humans with mobility issues, either by lifting people to help them move from bed to chair, or by acting as a wheelchair that can transform itself into a bed. Since these are tasks that often take two people to complete, these robots can avoid the necessity for extra nursing care. And then there are robotic cats and dogs which don't help with eldercare, but do offer seniors extra companionship and the chance to interact and snuggle where a real pet may not be practical. And, unlike most carebots, they're available now, for less than $100.

Published on: Dec 28, 2016
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