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Technology Is Transforming Caregiving

As the U.S. population ages, robots may help fill a caregiving void

During August’s World Robotics Conference in Beijing, humanoids that resembled a shorter, cuter, white C-3PO sang, danced and told stories.

Those cartoonish-looking iPal robots (below) elicited smiles and laughs. Yet, they and their mechanical brethren may soon fulfill a serious mission: keeping those older Americans healthy, active and alert.

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Companies around the world are investing in “socially assistive" robots — they assist through social interaction, not physical interaction, and can help with the caregiving concerns of an aging population. From AvatarMind's iPal, which could eventually monitor for falls, and Catalia Health's Mabu, who can ask questions like a nurse, to a plush seal that improves the mood of users, these robotic assistants may be increasingly marketable in a world where caregiver shortages in the U.S. are expected to reach nearly 450,000 by 2025.

spinner image Woman dancing with iPal robot
Courtesy of iPal

The iPal’s elder-focused software is still being developed, but it may soon be able to remind you to take medicine and provide entertaining content, mind-stimulating puzzles and more. Once on the market, it would join other socially assistive robots such as the aforementioned Mabu and Intuition Robotics’ ElliQ, both of which are already coaching and educating older U.S. adults to good health.

“I do see a lot of promise in this,” says William Dale, M.D.,  a geriatrician and palliative medicine specialist at City of Hope National Medical Center. He can envision devices helping with tasks such as reminding patients to take medicines, to eat or go for a walk. “I imagine it being useful, especially if they are in the early stages of physical or cognitive decline,” he says.  Yet, he adds, people also need the empathy and kindness that come from other humans. “The social benefits of that are hard to replace,” he says, noting that there are limits to what any device driven by algorithms can do. “There are some things that require human judgement.”

Globally, the number of people 60 and older is expected to skyrocket from 962 million in 2017 to 2.1 billion in 2050, according to the United Nations. At the same time, countless people regularly use technology such as smartphones, Google Homes and Amazon Echos to enhance their lives.  

“Technology is much more ubiquitous today,” says Cory Kidd, Catalia Health's founder and CEO. “It’s the right place and time to use [robots] like this” to aide the larger community.

spinner image Mabu robot holding tablet
Courtesy of Mabu

Mabu (above), a 15-inch yellow robot with large round eyes is currently focused on helping patients with congestive heart failure, by tracking medications and activity level. Through a new working relationship with the American Heart Association, Mabu now has access to all the AHA's scientific-based guidelines to better inform patient interaction. Later iterations will assist with late-stage kidney cancer and rheumatoid arthritis, Kidd says. 

A typical conversation begins with Mabu asking how a person feels. Its queries (both verbal and text on a screen) can then delve into other areas, such as inquiring about someone’s weight or screening for anxiety and depression. The information is then analyzed by Catalia Health, with pertinent data sent to the user’s health care providers.

Mabu, which came on the market earlier this year, is not covered by traditional health insurance. It is currently supplied as a courtesy to users through pharmaceutical companies and health care providers such as Kaiser Permanente. 

spinner image Man talking to ElliQ robot
Courtesy of ElliQ

ElliQ (above) — currently being tested in California by about a dozen people between the ages of 62 and 97 — looks more like a small, modular lamp than a robot. It proactively offers trivia, plays music, suggests educational video lectures and encourages outside walks. It also connects the user with others through video or text and photo messaging. 

“The whole goal of ElliQ is to help people stay active and engaged and to be a presence on their side throughout the day,” says Intuition Robotics cofounder and CEO Dor Skuler. After launch, ElliQ will be available to consumers through the company's website and other business-to-consumer channels. (Intuition and Catalia didn’t disclose prices for their products; the iPal will sell for $2,500.) 

spinner image Two women petting Paro seal robot
Courtesy of Paro

Paro (above), a $6,000 interactive baby seal, is another robot that offers emotional support. The plush white device, about the size of a large stuffed animal, responds to stimulants such as touch, noise, light and temperature by moving its head and legs or making sounds. The robot has helped to improve the mood of its users, as well as offers some relief from the strains of anxiety and depression, says inventor Takanori Shibata, a chief senior research scientist at Japan's Human Informatics Research Institute and National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST). The 300 Paros in the U.S. are a fraction of the 3,500 found in Japan, a country that has adopted the use of socially assistive robots more rapidly due to its rapidly graying nation.

Yet, the U.S. is making advances. The National Institute on Aging has provided more than $1 million in research funding for socially assistive robots. And the market is ripe for investment from others, such as venture capitalists, says Maja J. Matarić,  a roboticist and computer science professor at the University of Southern California. “In my experience, elderly users are very open toward trying technology,” she says.

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Matarić stresses that the goal isn’t to replace humans. Robots can facilitate strong relationships between people, she says, as well as provide the tools and social support to help seniors live independent lives. “It’s about motivating people to help themselves,” she says. “The way you live long and stay happy is that you want to get up and do something.” 

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