UC-San Diego’s New Robotics Institute Aims To Help People Age at Home

SAN DIEGO — UC-San Diego researchers are working to develop robots that can listen, speak and react to human needs.

Earlier this month, the university launched its Contextual Robotics Institute, a multi-disciplinary effort to develop robotic technology with artificial intelligence that can be used to help the country’s growing elderly population “age in place.”  

Rajesh Gupta — professor and chair of the computer science and engineering department at UC-San Diego — said the new institute’s work is unique in that it draws heavily on cognitive sciences with the goal of developing robots that can read emotions and respond to people more like humans.

The field of robotics is growing at a rapid pace. Universities and technology companies are working on self-driving cars, robots that can clean hotel rooms and a wide range of other robotic applications.

Until now, Gupta said, robotics have focused primarily on mechanical functions, such as driving, flying, or manufacturing.

“So, all robotics in the past have been with machines that have stiff joints, things which are mechanically strong,” he said.

“When it comes to interaction with humans, most robotic machines are too stiff or too autistic. They don’t really make a distinction between what you’re thinking or feeling,” Gupta said.

UC-San Diego’s new  institute will bring together experts in the fields of engineering, computer and social sciences to develop machines that Gupta said will be able to recognize their environment, understand the context of a situation and synthesize the information to take the appropriate action.

To be useful in a home setting, he said, “The robot has to be able to sense things, not necessarily be told to do everything.”

The Graying of America

The country is aging fast.

Each day in the U.S., 10,000 people turn 65. By the year 2030, 18% of the nation will be at least 65 years old, according to population projections by the U.S. Census Bureau.

What’s more, a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that one in 20 people over the age of 65 is homebound in the U.S.

As our country ages, the needs of older adults interested in remaining independent and at home multiply. So too do the business opportunities for researchers and entrepreneurs creating products and services that can monitor and even treat health issues at home.

As a result, robotics and other technologies for older adults and their caretakers is a rapidly growing field.

A recent report by AARP found that the sum of all economic activity serving the needs of Americans over age 50 — known as the “longevity economy” — represents more than $7 trillion, a number expected to reach well over $13.5 trillion by 2032.

Promising Potential for Robots in Health Care

Using robots for health care purposes is already a reality.

For example, In Touch Health offers an advanced stroke diagnostic tool that can be attached to a robot that travels to patient rooms, analyzes charts and talks to the patient while a physician may be sitting somewhere else.

“It is so effective that last year, this company did 70,000 stroke treatments. That is 10 times more than any hospital system,” Gupta said of the technology.

This year’s Consumer Electronic Show unveiled home health care exoskeletons — wearable robots — that help people to stand and walk.

Robotic technologies that can interact with older adults and function as stand-in companions have been developed, with some in use. Other robots are able to speak to people and help them remember to take medications and other treatments necessary to maintain their health.

“There are a lot of innovations in [robotics], but whether or not they’re likely to be widely used generally  comes down to price, functionality and service,” said  Laurie Orlov, an aging-in-place technology expert and founder of the Aging in Place Technology Watch blog and market research firm Boomer Health Tech Watch.

“A lot of the robotic stuff that got invented early on was very expensive,” she said.

Other technologies developed to help people age in place show promise, said Stephen Johnston, co-founder of Aging 2.0, a global network that brings start-ups and innovations to senior care.

For example, home sensors placed in “smart homes” are currently used to monitor eating habits, sleep and wake times. Often, they relay information back to a hub, and notices can be sent to loved ones by smartphone applications.  

“For me, the smart home has the advantage that you don’t have to be wearing things, especially for older people with delicate skin or who are forgetful,” Johnston said. 

Wearable technologies such as Fitbit and Jawbone that are primarily used to track sleep and activity could be very useful for older adults if designed properly, experts said. But a recent report by AARP of people over the age of 50 found that while most reported the trackers were useful, many people stopped using them because the data were inaccurate, or the devices were difficult or uncomfortable to use.

“The people who will benefit the most from wearables are the least likely to be marketed to,” Johnston said. Companies more commonly target 25-year old athletes, he said. “But really it’s the 85-year old with dementia and obesity that most needs it.”

Johnston says good design and developing products that people aspire to own will ultimately be the key to consumers’ long-term engagement with technology.

“It’s about moving away from the negative connotations around health care-driven ugly white boxes that are telegraphing the incapacity and frailty,” he said.

Future of Tech and Aging

The markets for products aimed at helping people age in place are still fairly nascent, experts say. And there are many challenges ahead for the industry.

People may resist tools that monitor their activity and send the information back to loved ones, or robots that interpret their emotions by reading facial expressions.

Connected technology also raises significant privacy concerns. 

And, despite all the activity in senior care, experts say there are no break-out products dedicated to helping people age in place.

Still, Johnston said he’s bullish on the market and sees venture capital firms beginning to invest heavily in this space.

“Next year there will be break-out growth.” 

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Aging Insight