Posted by:  Jason T. Johns

Senior care is being re-envisioned with the advent of artificial intelligence. There is a need to provide an ever-increasing aging population with consistent and competent health aides. In the United States the healthcare industry employs over 4.5 million nursing aides, orderlies, home health aides and personal care aides, and yet it is not enough to address the future needs of the American elderly. New solutions are being developed for animatronic artificial intelligence and the more standard device driven artificial intelligence to meet the demand.

The National Science Foundation has provided a $1 million grant to Brown University and Hasbro Inc. to develop furry animatronic cats and dogs coupled with artificial intelligence to assist seniors in their daily lives. The project’s team is tasked with designing a smart companion within 3 years that is capable of helping the elderly with the simple yet sometimes challenging tasks of everyday life. The project is called ARIES (Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support), and in addition to providing support for daily tasks, the smart companions will also provide comfort and joy for older adults, particularly those with mild dementia problems.

Some of the goals of the ARIES project include sensor systems that allow the smart companion to identify and track important objects in day to day living such as keys, glasses, pillboxes. The smart companion can also remind the individual of essential tasks and events and even enhance their safety. Communication between the smart companion and the senior will be fully developed so that gestures, such as a nudge, or a purr, can guide the user toward a misplaced object or be a reminder that it is time to take medications. The current animatronic model of cat or dog retails for a reasonable $100, but when artificial intelligence is added into the product, the costs can skyrocket to $5,000-$6,000. As with all technology, over time the market for smart companions will become more competitive and thus more affordable. Beyond task driven assistance, these smart companions provide some stress relief and companionship to the senior reducing the problems of social isolation and loneliness.

Intuition Robotics Ltd. has more than $20 million in venture capital funding (of which Toyota AI ventures is a major investor) and has launched ELLI.Q, an “aging companion.” This artificial intelligence elder care robot uses machine learning and vision, thereby enabling ELLI.Q to make suggestions to its senior friend, recommending entertainment and other activities. It is also capable of monitoring the overall wellness of the senior in his or her environment. ELLI.Q is a more robust system than the currently available “Okay Google” Assistant or Apple’s “Siri” as it has the added benefit of vision and the capability to tailor information to the needs and schedule of the senior it supports.

There are many other examples of corporate research and development into the applications of artificial intelligence to benefit the aging population. As these systems become more prevalent in senior care, ethical questions will have to be addressed as well as technological ones. For instance, if an elderly care robot is reminding their senior to take their medication and yet the senior refuses to comply with the instruction, what happens next? Without a system to contact a human nurse counterpart, the patient could merely ignore the reminder. What if the patient has dementia and immediately forgets what they were instructed to do? Will the smart companion have redundancies to address this or will that feature make a senior confused and take their medication twice? What would happen in the scenario if a diabetic patient is told not to have a high sugar content food but they ignore the warning? Will there ever be a time when a remote caregiver uses an automated robot to restrain an older adult? What are the moral and legal precedents for this type of artificial intelligence/robotic interaction and what happens if someone is hurt because of it?

The future of artificial intelligence application in senior care is intriguing but practical applications are currently limited. While the basic capabilities for in-home companion products are functional, provide oversight, and are ready for the marketplace, the more complex artificial intelligence smart systems are still in development. The increasing aged population will continue to drive the necessity for these smart systems.

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