Ambient Assisted Living: The Future of Seniors’ Independence

Solving the problem of seniors’ independence as the population ages is of concern throughout the developed world. It has engendered different approaches in Japan, Europe and the US.

Our companion article on technologies that make life easier for seniors and the elderly living at home described devices that are programmed to act in some way, such as doing chores like vacuuming. One from iRobot can clean raingutters, while a more dexterous one from Sharp can wash dishes.

Such robots act purely as useful machines, however, and will do nothing to solve the overriding problem that Japan, Europe and America are all facing: Coping with the healthcare needs of an aging population whose members want to remain in their homes after retirement.

If robots are to be useful beyond doing domestic chores, they will need to be able to distinguish between normal and abnormal conditions in the home environment, and recognize and act to ameliorate adverse health and safety conditions without supervision. So they will need to monitor and communicate as well as act. To accomplish the goal of enhancing independent living, robots will need to become caretakers for their charges.

Is this likely to happen any time in the near future? Let’s look at recent developments and ongoing research in the field of Ambient Assisted Living (AAL).

A growing population of seniors

The ultimate goal of AAL is to help society cope with a growing population of seniors and elderly by helping them remain in their homes. As the cost of home and institutional healthcare services continues to rise, the growing population of elderly needing such services will also rise. Can monitoring, communications and programmed “decision-making” by robots help, and if so, what needs to be done to facilitate it?

Though their goals seem to be the same, Japan, Europe and America have followed different approaches.

The Japanese approach: The Wakamaru

A pint-size robot, designed to provide companionship or function as a caretaker for the elderly, went on sale in Japan in 2006.

Made by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the Wakamaru robot,  is bright yellow, 3 feet 3 inches tall, weighs 66 lbs, and moves around easily on wheels. It has voice and face recognition and a built-in dictionary of 10,000 words, which enable it to carry on simple conversations. It can be programmed to connect to the Internet and to call or email a designated person or security firm in case it notes a problem.

Early applications outside the home included its use as a receptionist and guide for visitors to a hospital. The Wakamaru sold in 2006 for about $12,500, a price that necessarily limited its acceptance in the home. But its commercial release went a long way toward advancing the understanding of the ways that adults interact with a robot. The Wakamaru experience sparked a large number of research papers, such as this one on the effect of a robot’s appearance on the satisfaction of its users (Li, Rau, Li: Intl Journal of Social Robotics, 2(2), Jun 2010, 175-186):

“We propose a model with culture (Chinese, Korean and German), robot appearance (anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and machinelike) and task (teaching, guide, entertainment and security guard) as factors, and analyze these factors’ effects on the robot’s likeability, and people’s active response to, engagement with, trust in and satisfaction with the robot.”

The Japanese approach is to test a sophisticated combination of sensors, chips and motors to create a functional assistive robot, research the ways that their customers interact with it, and then engineer improvements in the next generation.

The European approach: Research into socially assistive robots

By 2050 there will be fewer than two persons of working age for each person 65 or older in Europe. This will lead to both an increasing demand for care and an acute shortage of caregivers.

Several ongoing research projects at European universities are designed to solve the problems of human interaction with robots, enhance the efficiency of machine learning, and expand the scope of what robots can do to assist in the home living environment. These projects include:

KSERA is a 3-year research project being done at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands in collaboration with six other European research institutions and an Israeli healthcare. Its main aim is to develop a socially assistive robot that helps elderly people, especially those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), with their daily activities, care needs and self-management of their disease.

“The main research question addressed in this project is how to obtain a successful, effective interaction between the human and the mobile robot to guarantee acceptance and adoption of service robotics technology and offer added value of the ubiquitous monitoring services [that is, putting up with a nosy, intrusive robot who will snitch if you light up a cigarette].”

A project called RoboEarth, also led from Eindhoven University of Technology, is a collaboration with Philips and four other research institutions. It is developing an interconnected web-based network and database for robots including nurse-bots and socially assistive robots. The robots use the network to store and retrieve learned tasks and actions. This enables robots to learn from each other and apply the shared knowledge in their own setting.

An Austrian project called eHOME, led by the Technical University of Vienna with three partners, is testing an assistive home environment for elderly persons, covering fall recognition and prevention, activity monitoring and social integration of elderly persons and their robotic caregivers.

The Florence project, named for Florence Nightengale, is being conducted by eight large commercial firms from four countries. It uses a multipurpose mobile robot platform in delivering new kinds of AAL services to elderly persons and their caretakers. The main objective is to make this concept acceptable for the users and cost effective for society and caregivers.

The goal of the ROBO M.D. project, being conducted at Johannes Kepler University in Austria in collaboration with four other European research institutions, is to develop a home care robot that monitors and detects critical situations which need prompt medical attention for older persons or those with cardiovascular diseases.

It is easy to see that the European approach is to study the elements of robotic healthcare monitoring and delivery systems and for each participant in the project to contribute some ideas that can then be tested to see which work best, with each project team liaising with each other team and then collaboratively integrating their knowledge over a period of years. At the end they will not have a product but a set of solid standards that manufacturers will adhere to in creating and delivering a product.

The American approach: Entrepreneurial solutions

As we noted in our article on monitoring systems, demand for innovative solutions is high, and many companies are expanding their range.of offerings. A few to check out are BeClose (“remote monitoring and custom notifications”), Help-Now (“personal emergency response with lifestyle management”), Sonamba (“well-being status monitor and medical alert system”), and GrandCare (“caregiving and communications tool, designed to enhance familial and caregiving relationships”).

And for something beyond, check out MedCottage (“a mobile, modular medical home designed to be temporarily placed on a caregiver’s property for rehabilitation and extended care”).

Then there are the assistive features of the Jitterbug cell phone and its optional applications that provide wellness features otherwise found only with the passive monitoring systems described above, such as an automatic check-in service, live nurse availability, and medication reminders. Click to learn more about the Jitterbug from the vendor’s website.

We can see that American entrepreneurs have already brought their ideas for ambient assistive living to market, and they will let the market will decide what works to meet seniors’ needs. Meanwhile, their customers will use and benefit from the early entry to the market. The winners may not be the absolute best solutions, but they will work reasonably well and will have achieved a substantial market penetration before the Europeans have agreed on standards.

Will the Japanese socially assistive robots find their way to the US? Of course, though they may or may not achieve significant market penetration for many years.

All the world’s ambient assisted living technology solutions will eventually find their way to market, and seniors the world over will be living independently longer in their homes as a result.

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