April 15, 2012
iRobot CEO Colin Angle focused on the potential of robots to improve the lives of the elderly in a witty keynote speech last week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s monthly Innovation Series event, Robotics in Healthcare: Solutions for the Hospital and Home. The event was held as part of National Robotics Week, aiming to educate and encourage college students and young professionals to pursue careers in robotics.
Angle emphasized the increasing need for a solution in a time when family members and caregivers are becoming increasingly busier with their own lives. A panel of five other professionals in the industry, including Angle, followed the speech.
Making practical robots a reality
When most people think of robots they think of R2D2 or something similar— a fancy, human-like, sometimes funny, sometimes evil android. Yet these cool sci-fi robots aren’t making the cut. They don’t provide value enough to justify their incredibly high cost, Angle explained.
Thus iRobot was born. Angle, along with his partners, Helen Greiner and Rodney Brooks, founded the company in 1990 with the vision of making practical robots a reality. Now, over a decade later, iRobot has ventured into the healthcare industry, with Angle asking the question: “Will a robot care for my mom?”
Angle opened his speech by explaining the difficulty of fitting in time to care for his mom between his already busy work and home schedule. Many in the audience could empathize—approximately 1 in 4 of the 150 present raised their hand when Angle asked if they experienced similar situations.
The statistics Angle shared were potent. There will be four people under age 65 for every one person above 65 by the year 2030, according to Angle, and of those four people, three will be either incapable or unwilling to care for their elder, leaving a ratio of only one caregiver to one senior.
“This is an incredibly frightening challenge,” Angle said. “Why? Because nursing homes are not great solutions and decreasingly so.”
In 2008, 75 percent of nursing homes failed to meet quality standards, and 3 out of 4 seniors didn’t want to be there anyway, according to information gathered by Angle. Seniors more often want to stay in their home, but their caregivers, too, want to stay in their own home. Angle thinks robots may be the answer.
The one-year extension point
Among others, there are two major problems facing seniors in the home. If you’re on five or more medications, there’s a 95 percent probability that you are doing it wrong, according to Angle’s research. The second problem is the inability of seniors to reach the phone for help in the case they fall or injure themselves.
“The list does, in fact, get increasingly challenging,” Angle said, “but you don’t have to solve it all in order to make it hit that one-year extension point.”
That one-year extension point is iRobot’s immediate goal: to extend independent living at least one more year before seniors have to go into a nursing home. Things such as helping people get to the phone, dress themselves, take care of themselves—these are all “completely reasonable things for robots to do,” Angle said.
Robots are currently already being used in telemedicine, where global connectivity and technology combine, allowing patients in remote locations to have access to specialists in other cities.
iRobot’s prototype, AVA, which Angle presented before wrapping up his speech, is designed to do just that and more, said Matthew Lloyd, director of communications for iRobot. He explained that AVA can navigate through a room full of people completely on its own, by creating a map of its environment and displaying it on its iPad head. This can be extremely useful for doctors, who could use the robot to go from room to room to do their rounds, Lloyd said.
But what about the social aspect?
David Kaloupek, a realtor from Cambridge, raised this important question during the panel discussion following Angle’s speech. Kaloupek said his mother, despite having experienced the loss of her home and a major hip injury, is now thriving in a center for the elderly thanks to the community there.
“How do you technology guys deal with that [the social context]? It’s the hugs, the talk, it’s the touch. It’s that part.” Kaloupek said.
Other audience members also asked about the issues of privacy and trust, and Dr. Holly Yanco, associate chair of computer science at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, said most elders, although they wanted to use the robots, wanted them in other people’s homes.
Angle emphasized that the robots aren’t intended to replace human interaction, but rather to be only a partial solution to the problem of independent living for seniors.
“I don’t think we should be thinking of robots as surrogates for getting your butt off the couch and visiting your grandma,” Angle said.
To wrap up the panel discussion, Robotic Trends Managing Director Richard Erb added to Kaloupek’s social point.
“The technology won’t stop, and we gotta solve the social issues,” Erb said. “It’s social issues, it’s not the technology, and that’s where the market is. It’s pretty wild.”
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