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Yo Robot! How about those senior housing applications?

Personal service robots are out and about. So we’ve been talking about personal care robots for a long time – including the social engagement use of Paro the robotic seal, studied and re-studied at MIT. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal ran an article about a rented robot ($3000) to liven up a party.  Looking like a vacuum cleaner extension with eyes, it roved around a wedding on Segway-like wheels, presenting a movable and real-time image of an the groom’s 82-year-old mother who was physically unable to attend. Finally, a viable example of a robot in the service of an older adult!

Robots and seniors – prediction but no presence.  In a speech at MIT in 2004, there was mention of a predicted $6 billion market in service robots by 2009.  But it didn’t happen. iRobot, the most well-known company achieved revenue of more than $400 million in 2011, primarily in vacuum/floor care robots and military applications -- 1 in 50 troops was apparently a robot. VGo’s $6000 robot, according to the WSJ, has been used to attend classes on behalf of an ill teenager. An Anybot robot was used to create office presence for offsite workers. GeckoSystems, focused on mobility and wheelchairs, now believes the ubiquity date is 2020, but they are launching another CareBot by 2012 year end.

Senior housing organizations don’t see what others see. So robots are out there in the military battlefields, serving as remote presence proxies, following Microsoft engineers around the house, and of course, they are all over the manufacturing and assembly worlds. In many ways, they have met all of their long-term predictions EXCEPT for personal care – and they are notably absent in senior housing, including nursing homes. Scanning the ALFA presentation program for this May, such tech talk that is in any session is about electronic medical records and efficiency software. And in a sign that robots are viewed as still futuristic, LeadingAge published a November article about a few university research examples of robot use in senior care (come on, not Paro the seal again!!!!)

If senior housing organizations don’t ask, they won’t get it. Rather than wait for the Japanese or emulate LeadingAge (repeating the same potential uses noted in 2009) ask now -- you may get what you need. Senior housing executives should publish a Request for Ideas to a few robotics companies for cost-effective and innovative service uses -- first with pilot projects. For example, consider providing remote visitation/nurse consultations with doctors who can only visit communities monthly; using robots to accompany frail seniors into separate community rooms in which staff cannot be in two places at once; deploy night time long-hall observations driven by the nurse but enabled by a care robot; conduct inventory of resident supplies for re-order; and finally in dementia care, offer robot-based interactive programs that are personalized to the functional capability of residents. And...did I mention personal care services?

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As a member of the community developing robots as assistive companions to support seniors in living independently, while I am glad to see you highlight ongoing developments positively and encourage the senior housing industry to ensure there is good infrastructure in place to support the coming service robots, I would suggest that what we are seeing so far is only the first wave. Telepresence does have its value, as noted in the story where a mother was able to remotely attend a son's wedding. However, with remote teleconferencing now being a feature of almost all personal technology, from PCs to tablets to smartphones, I don't quite agree that this is a good reason for a senior to have a service robot.

To me, the value proposition must be much greater and start with daily value to the individual. Communication is an important part of that solution, just as much as it is very your mobile phone, but isn't enough. So yes, the idea of remote visitations from a doctor or nurse is valuable, but I don't believe it can rely on the doctor or nurse piloting the robot around the senior's house (unless the user is incapacitated). What will be needed is that the robot acts like a companion, that is sufficiently autonomous to move safely around by itself in response to the user, and also that it facilitates communication primary at the user's directive. So rather than a remote spy-cam, it is more like a mobile video phone that can support the user calling to their care provider or a family member, or receive a call without the user having to go to the device or carry one around. Only in emergency situations might remote presence in the senior living situation make sense.

Similarly, Paro is a great demonstration of how robots could potentially be more than functional appliances and support companionship. However, is it necessary that service robots for seniors be one or the other? I say no. I believe that functional and social interaction can (and must) be integrated into the design, that we don't necessarily have to have the dichotomy between Paro and Roomba.

But I do applaud your urging that the senior housing industry consider the infrastructure needs to integrate service robots. I for one would be welcome to have that dialog with them and collaborate to work out those details.

- Tandy Trower
CEO/Founder, Hoaloha Robotics

The head of Silverado Senior Living mentioned to me that he has a few of the Vgo robots at his locations. That give the HQ staff an ability to "walk" around and interface with the residents and staff. He said the residents liked it and didn't seem to have a problem with it.

I will accept product like a remote presence robot like Vgo may give caregiving staff a greater ability to watch over and perhaps even interact with the people they are caring for, and considering the increasing shortage of care workers that may be a good thing. But no one should assume this is a solution that empowers the seniors themselves within those environments. A robot companion designed to serve the senior requires a very different design.


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