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Will robots step up to help care for the aging baby boomer generation?

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April 17, 2008

The uBOT-5 aged care robot.

The uBOT-5 aged care robot.

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April 17, 2008 For members of Generation X, a realization must soon be dawning that our parents won't be self-sufficient captains of industry forever - and for the enormous baby-boomer generation, it must be sobering to realize they'll be relying on the most self-focused generation in history to look after them once peaceful retirement gives way to a need for assistance from an aged care industry that will struggle to accommodate demand. Money hasn't traditionally been a problem for the boomers, so perhaps it's a prudent time for technology to start making it as easy as possible for Gen Xers to look after their parents in the autumn of their years. One way is to employ remote robot carers like uBOT-5, which can quietly follow its owner around the house, take care of the cleaning, give reminders about medication, help with shopping and make communication with doctors and loved ones much easier. The uBOT-5 also has the ability to recognize when its owner has fallen or become unresponsive, allowing it to immediately dial 911 for medical attention and relay important information to caregivers en route.

The uBOT-5 is the result of project ASSIST, undertaken by a group of postgraduate researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in response to the fact that 77 million baby boomers will be retiring in the next 30 years, placing unprecedented levels of strain on the community services and medical systems.

“For the first time, robots are safe enough and inexpensive enough to do meaningful work in a residential environment,” says computer scientist Rod Grupen, director of UMass Amherst’s Laboratory for Perceptual Robotics, who developed project ASSIST with computer scientists Allen Hanson and Edward Riseman.

The uBOT-5 could assist the elderly in living independently, providing relief for caregivers, doctors and community services workers. The robot is designed both to make life easy for its owner and to act as eyes, ears and communications portal for loved ones and caregivers in remote locations.

The robot is able to perform basic cleaning tasks around the house, while keeping a quiet eye on the owner's activities. It's able to recognize certain activities such as walking, sitting or sleeping, as well as unusual motions including falling over, which could trigger the robot to assist, or notify an external caregiver if the person is unresponsive.

Balancing on its Segway-style wheels, the uBOT-5 is able to clear small items from its path, and carry smallish items like grocery bags around to assist the owner.

Recognizing the fact that isolation and associated depression is a great challenge for the elderly, the team built in several specialized communications features. The robot can handle incoming and outgoing phone calls through its video touch-screen, speakers and microphones, alerting its owners who may not hear a regular phone ringing. Video call capability can make it easy for loved ones to keep in touch, as well as for medical caregivers to perform virtual visits.

The robot, while self-balancing, can pick itself up in the event that it falls over. The researchers wanted to create a personal robot that could provide many services, such as a medical alert system, or the means to talk to loved ones, all in one human-like package, according to Grupen. To evaluate the effectiveness of potential technologies, the research team worked with social workers, members of the medical community and family members of those in elder care.

The collaborative effort, dubbed project ASSIST, involved researchers from the Smith College School for Social Work, the Veteran’s Administration (Connecticut Health Care System, West Haven campus) and elder care community centres in western Massachusetts. Through focus groups, the researchers learned about the preferences of potential users.

Graduate students Patrick Deegan, Emily Horrell, Shichao Ou, Sharaj Sen, Brian Thibodeau, Adam Williams and Dan Xie are also collaborators on project ASSIST.

While I can't imagine my parents being too happy forsaking direct human contact for something like the u-BOT 5 - in fact, many might find it quite disturbing and unsettling to have a robot following them around the house - project ASSIST deserves credit for looking for practical solutions to a very real problem that is just over the horizon.

About the Author
Loz Blain Loz has been one of Gizmag's most versatile contributors since 2007. Joining the team as a motorcycle specialist, he has since covered everything from medical and military technology to aeronautics, music gear and historical artefacts. Since 2010 he's branched out into photography, video and audio production, and he remains the only Gizmag contributor willing to put his name to a sex toy review. A singer by night, he's often on the road with his a cappella band Suade.   All articles by Loz Blain
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