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Robotics and older adults – in 2017, are we there yet?

Investor money has forever flowed to innovation in robotics. Robots on the Runway at Digital Health at CES offered a view of what was new then in human-like robots, the most charming was Anybots QB, now QB2 – which would 'go to the office for you.'   In fact, this ‘telepresence’ robot begs the question, what’s a robot anyway – is it a 'machine controlled device through an external or (usually internal) computer, often equipped with audio, visual, and/or tactile sensors as well as other devices and tools to perform one or several programmed jobs?'  Oh yeah.  They can be autonomous, like the iRobot one for the military – working on their own.  Like Anybots, they could be a telepresence robot – a 'remote controlled, wheeled device that has wireless internet connectivity.'   And the market for all types in healthcare globally some say is $2.8 billion.

But what about seniors – have they benefited from well-funded robotics innovations?  Not so much, and not yet. The question might be, will they? It is certainly not for lack of trying, and not for lack of need. Each of the attempted applications have been focused on solving a real problem, whether it is remote consultation with a physician or caregiver, providing emotional support and companionship, or assisting a senior with an otherwise impossible task.  There have been a number of senior-focused initiatives in the past decade -- from Japan’s Paro the Seal (initially $6000), Cyberdine’s HAL to Softbank’s very charming NAO, under development since 2006 and a great hit at summits. There have been a few publicized senior-related use of robots, including telepresence in a senior living community, quite helpful for connecting seniors to long distance family. And some continue to move forward, well-documented in the media.

How do smarter table-top devices impact the table-top robot?  Consider the Amazon Echo Show – a tabletop unit that enables speaking to, i.e. dropping in on, long distance family without typing or swiping.  Now consider that it is $299.  The Kubi robotic swivel stand, used for remote directional positioning, was offered in 2016 with grandPad.  It is currently priced at $699. Oops, and that’s without the tablet, and Revolve Robotics seems to have repositioned into telehealth. Meanwhile, several well-funded initiatives seem to have focused on the table-top version. The most notable of these is Jibo, recipient of $72 million (!) of funding to date, and Intuition Robotics’ ElliQ, recipient of $14 million Series A funding, much of it from Toyota Research Institute, announced July 11.

For seniors and those who serve them, what makes sense moving, uh, forward?  Remote control navigation of telepresence robots (essentially video conferencing on a remote-controlled stand) seems to make sense in hospitals, where remote consultation/sharing is a necessity. Possibly useful in senior living communities with the right tech support from staff.  Perhaps useful for physical therapy rehabilitation (post stroke, for example). As for the social robot, like ElliQ and Jibo, it would make sense to leverage that investment in smarter software, now that Amazon’s Echo Show has reduced the utility of a tabletop robot; into migrating the software into interactive and mobile robots that can interact with seniors in resource-constrained areas, like senior Emergency Rooms, Skilled Nursing Facilities, and Assisted Living Memory care units.  How they are managed, administered, charged up, stored, safely navigated – all that remains to be revealed.



Curious as to whether you have assessed Catalia Health's MABU. Like you, I have wondered whether it will stack up against the Echo Show in performance-and price. Thanks!


MABU is not shipping -- it is in pilot -- Amazon Echo Show is shipping for $229.99.

So at this point, not comparable.




Telepresence communication/observation devices and intelligent personal assistant services will be valuable when we figure out how to use them. Adding mobility makes these devices more agile.  The ability to manipulate objects in the living environment would make them true robots.

Informal caregivers, would-be informal caregivers (friends, children and grandchildren), and even paid In-home caregivers collectively spend millions of hours each day engaged in smartphone frivolity. Instead of texting friends, shopping on Prime, or piloting imaginary killer drones, maybe we can use that time to fetch Amazon Prime packages from the front door, or pick up dropped remotes,  or bring glasses of water, or the meds; things that we could do today with tele-robots.  Maybe we could look around and see how things are going and even engage in some real human interaction.  “Long distance is the next best thing to being there.” 

We have proven that integrating the human/automation hybrid service systems we need is a grand challenge that takes more than money. It will require changing workflows and procedures; and to achieve economies of scale, large numbers of networked service providers and users.  We have barely scratched the surface. The care productivity improvement potential of teleservices is real, necessary and enormous. The barriers are illusory and artificial. It is time to dig in and make the technology work.

Agree with Mick's analysis in every respect, save for his description of barriers as being "illusory and artificial." I sense that barriers are indeed real-third party reimbursement, consumer resistance, and the gap between promise and performance of products and services. We can only make the technology work if we resolve these real issues.


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