Robotic Roommate Helps Seniors Stay Safe

IBM and Rice University to develop a smart companion for the elderly

For elderly folks who live alone, but need help with daily tasks, they currently have two choices: either hire in-home help, or move into an assisted-living facility. Neither of these options are always feasible. But in a few years, they’ll have a third choice: purchase a robot that will help care for them at home.

With an eye to the aging over-60 population, which is set to grow by more than 50 percent worldwide in the next 15 years, IBM is partnering with Rice University to create a robotic roommate that will provide company to the elderly, and also keep them safe.

The IBM Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant (MERA), will have a series of sensors that will detect things such as falling, unusual audio or scents, sudden changes in the heart rate or blood pressure, and whether the stove burner is on. It will be able to recognize speech and read facial expressions, and will know when it’s time to call for help. The sensors are being designed to mimic experiences that seniors have within their homes.

“Now is the time to invest in, care for, protect, and empower our aging population so they can live more independent lives,” said Arvind Krishna, Senior Vice President, IBM Research. “Our new research on ‘embodied cognition,’ which can combine real-time data generated by sensors with cognitive computing, will explore how to provide clinicians and caregivers with insights that could help them make better care decisions for their patients.”

Running on the IBM Cloud and a Softbank Pepper robot interface, IBM MERA uses IBM Watson technologies and CameraVitals, a technology designed at Rice University that calculates vital signs by recording video of a person’s face. These technologies allow IBM MERA to obtain fast readings on a patient’s heart and breathing multiple times throughout the day. Combined with IBM Watson speech APIs, the camera can also view if a fall has occurred and alert caregivers.

“The Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant represents the powerful impact that results when leaders in academia and private industry bring their best to bear on pressing societal issues,” said Rice Provost Marie Lynn Miranda. “We are delighted to work with IBM on this critical research project, which provides an opportunity for our students and faculty to collaborate with IBM’s best Age and Ability researchers at the IBM Research Lab in Austin.”

IBM has already developed the prototype of MERA, and is busy testing it at its ThinkLab in Austin, Texas. In this lab, named “Aging in Place,” IBM is creating situations that seniors face in their homes, and finding out how the robot is reacting to them. All these factors will help researchers the develop better robotic reactions to these situations.

MERA isn’t available to consumers yet. The company still has a lot of research to do before it begins to think about bringing the robot to market. IBM also wants the robot to enter each person’s home already chock-full of important information, and to do that requires collecting it first.

Susann Keohane, a senior technologist at IBM Research, told Business Insider that the project will address the need for technology that helps the elderly preserve both their independence and their overall health, while also avoiding disruption in their daily lives.

To learn more about the IBM MERA robot read the press release or read the Business Insider article.