The robot on track to be grandmother's little helper
Thursday, November 5, 2009 5:28:10 PM
Robot Sitting at Control Panel
Chris Ayres in Coronado Island, California
It has suction cups instead of hands, two sets of tank-tracks instead of feet, and is strong enough to carry an adult up a steep flight of stairs. Meet your grandmother’s new live-in helper: a robot built by an American company that has already pioneered robot vacuum cleaners and robot bomb-diffusers — 2,000 of which are on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The company, iRobot, says it plans to give collectively an extra “one million years of independent living” to elderly people around the world by making live-in robots that could make nursing homes obsolete. The robots — prototypes of which are already being tested — will be able to dispense pills, act as stair-climbing wheelchairs, monitor vital signs, provide live video monitoring, and call for an ambulance in case of an emergency. Just don’t expect much in the way of conversation — or bingo skills, for that matter. Colin Angle, co-founder of iRobot — the company is best known to consumers for its Roomba vacuum cleaning robot — made the claim this week at the industry TedMed conference in Coronado Island, California, attended by everyone from Hollywood celebrities to the senior Obama Administration healthcare adviser Ezekiel Emanuel. The conference comes as the US is desperately trying to find ways to lower the cost of healthcare — a crisis that many fear could worsen dramatically as the country’s 78 million “baby boomers” born after the Second World War turn 65. If lifespans in the West continue to lengthen, many of the baby boomers could need decades of round-the-clock help, yet such care is prohibitively expensive. Mr Angle told the conference that the average cost of institutional living in America was now more than $10,000 (£6,000) a month, or the equivalent of a mortgage on a $2 million home. Yet research shows that three out of four elderly people would rather continue living at home. Living at home is not an option in many cases, however, because adult children are often too busy with their careers or families to look after parents full-time. Even so, said Mr Angle, 22 per cent of Americans currently provide some kind of care that helps their elderly relatives to stay out of nursing homes. “Something has to give,” he said. “Well, what about robots?” Using a cardboard cut-out of his mother as a prop, Mr Angle demonstrated how technology can be used to make caring for elderly relatives easier. For example, if an older relative does not answer a nightly telephone call, a live-in robot can be sent to look for them, using mapping technology, heat sensors, and a live video feed.