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IBM, Rice Univ. Partner on Elder Care Robots

Aging in Place environment

Aging in Place environment, at IBM research lab in Austin, Texas (IBM Corp.)

8 December 2016. IBM is developing Watson super-computer and cloud computing applications with Rice University to create robot assistants that help older individuals remain safe in their own homes. The company also built a simulated aging-in-place environment and is testing systems that monitor the well-being of residents in an assisted-living facility.

The collaboration with Rice University in Houston is designing a system called the Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant, or Mera, that combines sensors to monitor the daily health and well-being of older individuals, as well as a offer resource to answer health-related questions. Mera collects data on residents’ vital signs, such as heart and respiratory rates, and follow movements with an accelerometer that show if the individual has fallen.

In addition, Mera, can answer spoken questions about health posed by the residents. IBM employs Watson’s speech-to-text and text-to-speech converters, along with natural language algorithms, and connects to the company’s cloud resources to provide answers to questions from residents or caregivers. The robot itself is a humanoid device, known as Pepper, made by SoftBank.

A system developed at Rice University known as CameraVitals makes it possible for Mera to capture a person’s vital signs. CameraVitals records video of a person’s face, then with facial-interpretation algorithms, computes pulse and breathing rates, and pulse rate variability. The system interprets changes in skin color, some barely visible to the naked eye, to make its calculations.

IBM created a simulated residence for older individuals called its Aging in Place environment at the company’s research lab in Austin, Texas. The simulated residence links sensors in the walls and floors and connected components known as Internet of Things, as well well as wearable devices. When combined with data from Mera robots, the systems can interpret motions and changes in atmospheric conditions, e.g., carbon monoxide, to identify dangers encountered by residents, such as falling or gas leaks. In addition, the systems can recognize changes from the daily routines of residents to highlight more subtle problems for caregivers.

The company is taking these systems outside the lab for real-life encounters with older individuals, working with Sole Cooperativa, an assisted-living residence for older individuals in Bolzano, Italy. The collaboration with Sole Cooperativa will provide a real-world test of IBM’s systems, but also gain the benefit of real-world experiences.

“By better understanding a person’s routines and surroundings,” says Sole Cooperativa president Roberta Massi in an IBM statement, “we can identify potential risks, personalize care, and deliver precise recommendations that improve their quality of life. We can also more effectively improve our business operations by ensuring our staff is more focused on helping residents and patients as potential medical issues arise.”

Representatives from IBM and Rice tell more about the collaboration in the following video.

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Disclosure: The author owns shares in IBM.

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