How Robots Are Changing the Way We Age
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By Julie Halpert,
The Fiscal Times
May 3, 2013

When an elderly person needs dinner, “Herb” answers a command given on an iPad. He heads to the freezer, pulls out a frozen meal, microwaves it and brings it to the person – just like that. What's different about this situation is that Herb is not a person. HERB actually stands for Home Exploring Robotic Butler, and is developed out of Carnegie Melon University's Quality of Life Technology (QoLT) Center.

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The center specializes in assistive robots for older adults and people with disabilities. Robots like HERB will have a "tremendous" impact on elder care, says the 34-year-old "father" of HERB, Siddhartha Srinivasa, an associate professor at Carnegie Melon's Robotics Institute. He hopes to see the machines commercialized in the U.S. on a large scale within his lifetime.

Robots – in addition to other uses – are now being viewed as a way to meet the needs of a fast-growing aging population, with technologies that assist in daily care and provide companionship. Over  the next 18 years, 78 million baby boomers will turn 65 at a rate of about 8,000 a day. And most will not be able to afford the daily help often required by age-related disability.

At the same time, health care costs are skyrocketing. Robots could help address both costs and manpower issues.

THE INDUSTRY LEADER
Japan has been leading the way in this field. For fiscal year 2013, the Japanese government provided $24.6 million to companies focusing on robotics for elder care, according to Hiro Murata, CEO for the Center for Studies on Aging Societies and a professor at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan. Emerging technologies focus on all sorts of elder care, from assistance with manual labor to tasks that improve cognitive abilities and maneuvering with limited mobility.

Japan has tested a variety of robotic technologies, including PARO, a seal robot that responds to an owner's touch and provides engaging companionship. Developed at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab, PARO was commercialized in Japan in 2005 followed by the U.S. in 2009. Early studies show that it benefits some Alzheimer’s patients, easing depression and reducing agitation. It retails for $6,000 or can be leased for $200 a month. To date, over 2,000 have been sold in Japan, with only 100 sold in the U.S.

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Honda is continuing to refine a robot it developed in 2006, ASIMO, a four-foot-three robot that can help around the house or assist someone confined to a bed or wheelchair. Another Japanese product is the hybrid assistive limb, an exoskeleton suit offered by Cyberdyne, which helps those who have been paralyzed or recovering from a stroke. The robotic suit has electrodes that attach to the skin and detect nerve activation coming from the brain to the muscle. A device controls a set of motors at the joints so that the suit's arm, attached to the limbs, moves in tandem to the command given to the limbs.

Majd Alwan, executive director of the LeadingAge Center for Aging Services Technologies, says Japanese robotics technology gets more attention from private industry than in the U.S. because the Japanese are more accepting culturally of robotic technologies in general while U.S. consumers still prefer human interaction.

U.S. ROBOT REVOLUTION
But Howard Wactlar of the National Science Foundation says that while the U.S. robotics industry largely collapsed in the 1980s, advancing technology has sparked renewed interest. "I think we see it coming back," he says. DARPA spends billions annually developing cutting-edge robots for military use, and many experts expect the technology to trickle down to the consumer sector in the coming years.

The National Science Foundation, partnering with NASA, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Agriculture, has provided $40 million in grants in the first year of its National Robotics Initiative, which focuses on co-robots that assist individuals in performing tasks. An NSF program supporting the development of health care delivery robots provided $4.5 million over the past two years, and last year, $15 million was allocated by NSF for a human/robot interaction program.

In addition to full-scale robots to assist the elderly, Wactlar says NSF is also funding smaller-scale initiatives, like a computer that plugs into a person's ear to help him or her understand how to complete a task he’s begun. 

Carnegie Melon’s QoLT Center, which receives $4 million in NSF funding annually, is focusing on technologies that allow older adults to remain in their homes longer. Its work includes a system to detect cognitive decline earlier by embedding sensors into everyday home appliances, a Strong Arm that makes it easier to lift patients, and an inflatable robot arm that can assist with tooth brushing, bathing and feeding.

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The Interaction Lab at the University of Southern California's Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems developed Bandit, a robot in a USC sweatshirt who sits in a chair, directing an elderly person sitting across from him on how to complete various exercises.

M.I.T.'s AgeLab has developed a robotic, autonomous wheelchair that's now being tested in partnership with The Boston Home, a clinical care facility for those who are wheelchair bound. Using voice recognition software and laser scanner technology, the wheelchair can detect how to get to a particular destination. "Any device that enables an individual with restricted physical ability to independently operate without staff, family member or paid assistant intervention has vast implications in terms of quality of life," says Don Fredette, director of Boston Home's Wheelchair Enhancement Center.

THE CHALLENGES AHEAD
Joseph F. Coughlin, who directs the AgeLab, says the new robotics products could help to address a coming workforce shortage in nursing facilities – the average age of a nurse today is 46, and 50 percent of the nurse force is scheduled to retire in 20 years, according to the BLS. "A lot of us will value the services that robots can provide to keep us independent and improve our well being," says Coughlin.

Completely autonomous robots that assist the elderly still have some challenges, says Srinivasa, HERB's developer. Robots that open doors, move objects and decide which book to pick up aren’t there yet. "That's the big challenge we're working on." He says technology will roll out in stages, appearing in smart appliances and other devices before a full-fledged robot hits the market.