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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

TED MED: Grandma's little robot helper

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For Colin Angle, the statistics make the case clear. Institutional care for the elderly costs an average of more than $10,000 per month, about equal to “the mortgage payment for a $2 million home.” At the same time, three out of four seniors want to continue living at home. To do so, many may need support from their adult children—who themselves are strapped for time while juggling the demands of work and family. “Something has to give in order for that to work,” Angle told the audience yesterday at the TED MED conference, which is being held this week in San Diego. “What am I going to do? Well, what about robots?”


That answer should not have been a complete surprise from Angle, who is, after all, cofounder, chairman and CEO of the company iRobot, and who just announced a new business unit to develop robots that can assist with elder care. Robots such as the company’s Roomba vacuum already do some household chores. Angle argued that the technology exists for them to do much more, and showed several examples.


If a nightly phone call from a relative goes unanswered, for instance, mapping technology in robots could enable them to navigate through the house to find the older person. The machines could then send a video transmission of the person to ease the mind of the anxious caregiver. In an on-stage demonstration, a squat robot with tank-like treads rolled up to Angle and displayed a black-and-white video that it captured of him on a large screen.


In addition to monitoring, robots could do physical work that could keep their owners healthier. Anyone who has tried to juggle the complex regimes for several prescriptions at once will readily appreciate the idea of having a robot deliver the right pill at the right time. And an inexpensive, balloon-shaped device that uses a small vacuum pump will let robots gently grab and then lift up various items for older home dwellers. Using a handheld version, Angle demonstrated the device’s ability to mold, blob-like, around odd-shaped objects and then hold them firmly when he used a mini-pump to apply the vacuum.


iRobot is not alone in efforts to bring robots home. A separate consortium of psychologists and computer scientists are working on making robots friendlier so that they are easier to live with. Bill Gates has also predicted a robot for every home in the future.


“A robot is never going to replace me” as a relative and caregiver of an aging parent, added Angle. “The part of robots is extending independent living.”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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