In a laboratory in St. James’s Hospital in Dublin, an elderly patient gets out of a chair, walks approximately 10 feet, turns around, goes back to the chair and sits down. Sensors track the patient’s movement as part of a test called Timed Up and Go (TUG). It’s just one piece of the research being done by TRIL, which stands for Technology Research for Independent Living, funded in large part by Intel. TRIL describes its mission as “Making Longer Lives Better.” As a result of this study, scientists can now predict with 80 percent accuracy whether a senior is likely to fall.
According to Niamh Scannell, European research director of Intel Health Research and Innovations, there are three principal reasons why older people wind up in long-term care: falls, cognitive decline and social isolation. The Intel team decided to concentrate its initial effort on falls, believing that technology could help address the underlying causes of a fall long before someone is brought into an emergency room.
So why is the world’s biggest maker of computer brains sponsoring basic research in 27 countries? It’s part of a quiet revolution triggered by a new mission statement from CEO Paul Otellini: “This decade we will create and extend computing technology to connect and enrich the lives of every person on earth.” According to Justin Rattner, Intel's chief technology officer, the company is already changing the way it operates. “For a company whose 40-year history was to deliver technology, this is quite a change in getting to understand what people need at different stages of their lives, and to deliver appropriate products,” he says.
Intel had already spent almost a decade researching the aging process. In part, Intel thought that new age-appropriate devices might generate more demand for its technology. The products that resulted from its research are now being made and marketed by the Intel-GE joint venture, Care Innovations. Among them is the Intel Reader, a mobile device that helps those with visual impairments or learning disabilities to read books. The venture is also making software and hardware for telemedicine and social connectivity.
The driving force for much of this research is Eric Dishman, head of the company’s Health Strategy and Solutions Group, who says, “Global aging is a megatrend that impacts every aspect of Intel’s business, whether it’s our employees, or as a silicon manufacturer that wonders how health and wellness are going to figure in purchasing decisions.”
His group is focusing its long term research in three major areas:
1. Care Coordination. What does the future of primary care look like in a world where the number of primary care doctors is actually declining as the aging population explodes? Can information technology make it possible for doctors to spend more time with patients and less time on paperwork? How much of the care burden might be shared by nurse practitioners, volunteers and even family members?
2. Communities and Infrastructure for the Elderly. Intel is working with governments to engineer communities and entire cities to meet the needs of the elderly. Much of this work is taking place in the Asia-Pacific region and in Europe. China is prototyping the first of 40 new cities designed to meet the needs of the elderly.
Dishman notes that various parts of the infrastructure can be redesigned for the elderly. Take the case of an elderly woman who uses a coffee maker. If that coffee maker is connected to a smart electrical grid and it goes unused for several days, it could alert a caregiver to a possible problem.
He says a major challenge is going to be how much care can be delivered in the home instead of hospitals or clinics. And while the issues may be universal, the solutions need to be local .
3. Computing for Personalized Medicine. Intel is working on ways to harness technology to build cost-effective gene-sequencing computers. The hope is that eventually doctors can use your genes to deliver individually crafted medical treatment.
Despite its “Intel Inside” campaign, Intel is not a consumer facing company. Its major business is making chips so its customers can build computers. And even in the health care business, its initial orientation has been toward institutions, not consumers. Dishman describes it this way, “So far, we have focused on institutional business models and channels. There just isn’t the shelf space, consumer awareness and critical mass of a wide range of home health, independent living and assistive solutions out there as yet to go “mainstream” to consumers. And the challenge with many of our solutions is that they are about interacting with a care provider or coach like a physician, nurse, social worker or teacher, so having an institution provide the service and technology “closes the loop” by making sure there are trained professionals involved.”
Intel’s Rattner is spearheading another initiative called “Context Aware Computing.” It calls for many of your connected devices to actually work together to be proactive. That’s already being incorporated into some of the Care Innovation products. Eric Dishman points out that one product, the Care Innovations Guide, has intelligent software that uses awareness of context (time of day, responses to questionnaires, the patient’s care plan, recent vital signs) to help make sense of what is happening with a chronic condition like congestive heart failure. That can help teach or coach the patient on, for example, how to properly take a medication at just the right moment.
For those of us still on the go, Rattner paints this scenario: you’re traveling to New York. Because you have a history of looking up Indian restaurants, your smartphone alerts you to one that’s a block from your hotel. Based on the music on your smartphone, the device tells you that one of your favorite groups is playing at a nearby club. And Rattner says face recognition technology might soon be used to help you identify acquaintances in a crowded room, which could eliminate some embarrassing memory lapses.
While Intel performs basic research for future products, the company still has to persuade its customers to bring the insights it’s developed to end users. Dishman notes: “The biggest challenge is driving universal design principles to make all consumer and electronic products user-friendly to seniors, first-time users and people with disabilities, instead of creating specialized, often stigmatized technologies for those populations. If we can design for people with extreme needs, the resulting products will be easier, smoother and more pleasant for all of us.” But in the end, it will be up to Intel customers such as Hewlett Packard, Dell, Lenovo, LG and a host of others to make the decision about what will ultimately be available to consumers.
Will those efforts be as revolutionary as redefining aging? Perhaps not. But Intel feels the potential uses for its technologies to improve the quality of our lives are almost infinite. And if Intel succeeds in its research efforts, as we age we could all find more of Intel inside.
Also of interest: HP helps boomers and seniors with tech solutions.