By Wang Zhe
One constant fear among the aging population is becoming unable to perform daily tasks on their own. Many see the need for help as a loss of dignity.
Everyone will grapple with such worries eventually. The ultimate goal of every senior-care robot R&D team is to give the elderly more dignity during their twilight years.
The prospects of robots serving the elderly has ignited excitement as well as skepticism. Would you want to spend your final days with a robot?
From a Concept to a Reality
As early as April 2016, the Robot Industry Development Plan (2016-2020) jointly issued by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Finance proposed that robots become a player in the senior care service industry within five years. In May of that year, a group of intelligent nursing robots began testing in senior care institutions, making robotic elderly care a reality.
In May 2016, the Hangzhou Social Welfare Center became the first institution to introduce robotic help. Robot “Atie” joined staff with abilities to perform intelligent nursing, recognize voice, conduct remote diagnosis and recommend treatment. The device can patrol the room day and night, monitor the living conditions of the elderly and perform much of the daily inspection and interaction that a caregiver would.
Meanwhile, an elderly nursing center in Guangzhou also introduced a smart aged care robot called “Xiaokang.” “Xiaokang” can perform facial recognition to quickly identify the user and carry out targeted emotional communication. It has built-in high-precision sensors to detect airborne particulate matter and formaldehyde and monitor temperature and humidity.
However, practical application of currently available senior care robotic technologies appears far from optimistic.
After “Atie” was introduced in Hangzhou Social Welfare Center in 2016, few elderly residents developed any habits of using it. “Atie” was ultimately relegated to singing to them. “That machine is far from human,” noted one resident. “It does things very mechanically; its human interaction is lacking. It cannot replace a doctor or nurse’s role in monitoring a patient.”
“Atie, I like you!” exclaimed one old man. Atie responded: “Master, what instructions do you have?” Similarly, the situation for “Xiaokang” is not ideal. The robot has yet to play much of its intended role. Now it is only used for environmental monitoring.
An executive at Xingfu Yiyang Healthcare Investment Holding, a senior care company, highlighted human emotion and the fact that the elderly need more communication with other people. From practical experience, existing senior-care robots cannot establish emotional bonds with people, so they hardly comfort the elderly missing their children.
“Robots have blind spots and limitations,” opined Zhang Jie, who as an only child like her husband faces the prospect of caring for four aging parents simultaneously. “What if a bug in the robot’s software causes an accident?” She considers presentday robots incapable of performing true human interaction. She feels like throwing her parents lacking companionship to a robot that can’t communicate would make things worse. She suggests researchers work harder to enhance specific functions of robot that can directly help the elderly and forget about gimmicks such as emotional exchange.
“Although robotic senior care has emerged as a trend, replacing family with a machine remains firmly in the realm of science fiction,” admitted Gan Zhongxue, chairman of Zhejiang Robot Industry Group, noting that robot design should focus more on observing human emotions to drive the human-computer interaction experience. The technology to make robots more intelligent and human still has a long way to go.
Senior Care Robot Boom
Discussion of senior care robots continued in full force from the World Robot Congress in Beijing in 2018 to the 6th China Robot Summit and Intelligent Economy Talent Summit held in Yuyao, Zhejiang Province, in May 2019.
Intelligent nursing robot “Baize” developed by the Ningbo Intelligent Robot Research Institute is touted as the real version of Baymax in the animated film Big Hero 6 with an even higher level of intelligence. Its core skill is to pick up, carry and transport the elderly to the toilet. Baize is an aluminum alloy robot that weighs 120 kilograms. However, when it embraces a person, all contact surfaces are soft thanks to an embedded sponge beneath a leather cover, making it feel like a soft hug.
Exoskeleton robots are nothing new. They have been applied in many special industrial applications and are often seen in movies. In the Marvel films, exoskeleton robots can turn an ordinary person into Iron Man. In the film Edge of Tomorrow , Tom Cruise employs an exoskeleton robot to become a super warrior in a second. And in real life, many companies are using exoskeleton robots to restore seniors’ abilities to stand and walk, improving their quality of life.
“I have several elderly relatives and friends who are bedridden and require constant care because of diseases in the lower limbs,” revealed a founder of an exoskeleton robot company attending the China Robot Summit. “Both their bodies and minds were suffering, which left a deep impression on me.” Integrating ergonomics, bionics, robotics and multi-sensor information fusion technology as part of the “central nerve plasticity” theory, the company’s robot provides a pair of “healthy legs” to seniors with mobility difficulties. The robot can achieve “foot-to-heart movement” and assist the elderly with complex movements such as going to the toilet and descending stairs. The safe and stable robot can also help the elderly travel to rehabilitation training.
Pan Yunhe, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said that the robotics field is now trending towards human-computer integration. He believes that human-computer interaction technology is becoming more and more mature, and wearable devices are emerging rapidly. All these developments are linked to artificial intelligence technology. Furthermore, he considers implementation of the Development Planning for a New Generation of Artificial Intelligence an important opportunity. For the senior care robots, a market explosion may be in the making.