Smarter living for seniors
© Westend61/Getty
April 2021

Smarter living for seniors

By Björn Carstens
Scientists are working at full stretch on the development of robots for everyday life and technical systems to keep an aging society agile for as long as possible. What’s available now, what’s still in the pipeline, and what issues are emerging in the process – “tomorrow” provides an overview of the current and future state.
Humanoid robots

We still have fond memories of it: the cute robot named Number 5 from the 1986 comic science fiction film Short Circuit that acquires knowledge at breath-taking speed. A robot made up of metal and electronics that responds with empathy in interactions with its counterparts of flesh and blood. A robot whose design has taken cues from the human body shape. In a manner of speaking, scientists have been working on the perfect evolution of Number 5 for decades, on ­humanoid assistance robots designed to make our daily lives easier. Especially the daily lives of a specific target group that in the wake of demographic change accounts for a steadily growing proportion of society: senior citizens. The idea is to enable them to lead a self-determined life for as long as possible with utmost flexibility and agility, assisted by robotics and technologies based on artificial intelligence. Loading the dishwasher, fetching clothes, setting the table – there are many things that robots could handle for the generation that’s 70 years and older. Robotics research has created a number of prototypes now being deployed. Is Number 6 already alive?

If so, it’s just been given a different name. Robots like LIO, HOBBIT and CARE-O-BOT navigate their way through homes, reach for objects and communicate with humans. They can be connected to fall detection sensors. TWENDY ONE helps with household chores, CODY can wash people, DOUBLE is a remote-controlled self-driving tablet PC that can also be used for communication. ZORA sings and dances with care recipients and encourages them to engage in exercises enhancing their fitness.

Attention-sensitive robots

However, the range of applications for all of these machines is (still) limited. Within the framework of the “JuBot – Young at heart with robots” project, Professor Holger Hanselka, President of the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology (KIT), and his colleagues are engaged in such assistant robotics research work: “We’re emphasizing a human-centric approach. Our ARMAR robots are already performing complex tasks in kitchen settings, continually learn from interactions with humans and interact with them with the help of natural speech.” However, he adds, a next step would have to increasingly focus on intuitively non-verbal communication, for instance, by humans exchanging gestures, facial expressions or even just glances with humanoid robots and the machines subsequently knowing what the human wants. “The objective is to develop humanoid robots that can anticipate that the person they’re interacting with has a need,” explains Hanselka, referring to attention-sensitive robots. This would have the important effect of significantly raising acceptance among the target group, provided that machines were to develop socio-empathic traits.

Smarter living for seniors
The ARMAR robots developed at the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology (KIT) carry out complex tasks in a kitchen setting, learn from humans and interact with them using natural speech© KIT
AI for enhanced accessibility

  • Smart glasses
    They remind the wearer of individual steps to follow when cooking and baking.

  • Smart picture-taking
    When taking pictures with a camera phone, AI technology recognizes the subject and compensates for camera shake. That’s beneficial for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease (PD).

  • Microsoft’s Seeing AI
    Blind users are provided with a description of their surroundings on a camera phone. The app can read text, describe colors and recognize friends.

  • Smart spoons
    They can compensate for the tremor in the hands of PD patients.

  • Deepfake technology
    The system animates photographs of relatives that have passed away long ago and transforms old portraits into eerily winking and smiling videos.
5 %

of the world population in 1950 was at least 65 years old. Now the rate is roughly 9 percent and by 2100 nearly 23 percent will be in that age group, according to forecasts. Aging societies are part of the global demographic change, which Schaeffler, in its Roadmap 2025, has also defined as a major future trend that’s associated with special opportunities.

“Walking aids” of tomorrow
Smarter living for seniors© KIT

Feet that will no longer carry them or waning eyesight are worst-case ­scenarios for many seniors. For such scenarios, Google’s spin-off Waymo develops small self-driving vehicles for use as personal taxis that can be summoned directly to one’s doorstep with simple voice commands. The smart walking canes of the French start-up Dring with a built-in GPS chip and smartphone connection informing their users of their whereabouts and warning them if need be can compensate for mobility deficits as well. Wheelchair users might be able to get around faster with an idea from Klaxon Mobility in Austria and Voi, a Swedish company offering electric scooter rentals. The partners are working on an electric drive unit for wheelchairs and on a three-wheeled electric scooter for sitting. The KIT-EXO-1 exoskeleton developed at KIT that’s intended to intuitively amplify human abilities is heading in a different direction. Seniors could “don” the robot in the morning to remain mobile during the day.

I’d like to see us accepting little technical helpers in our everyday lives

Professor Holger Hanselka,
President of Karlsruhe Institute for Technology
Smarter living for seniors
Three-wheeled electric scooter alternative for wheelchair users© Voi
Back to the future

As far back as in 1932, the American scientist and inventor Edwin Land laid the foundation for Virtual Reality (VR) with a polarization filter that merged two images from different perspectives. Land, at age 82, died in 1991 – too early to enjoy the enormous evolution of his invention at an even more advanced age, as elderly people and VR have since begun forming a perfect pairing and 360-degree video headsets are increasingly gaining traction in home use, bringing the whole world into people’s living rooms: hiking through the Grand Canyon, enjoying wellness vacations, attending musicals, and more. For seniors with impaired mobility, all of these activities are possible in the virtual world. KIT President Prof. Holger Hanselka: “VR has great potential to prevent loneliness and depression in elderly people. Images, landscapes and videos from the past generate feelings of happiness, which reduces stress hormones and enhances people’s state of mind. It’s an ideal technology for seniors.” VR as a versatile therapeutic approach has enormous potential.

Examples include meditation exercises at places of longing, socializing beyond 2D mode in online conferences or using VR as a fitness tool for riding through scenic landscapes on a stationary exercise bike. Virtual visits to the doctor’s office are possible, too. Dealing with mental health issues is another focal area. The anxiety of paranoia patients concerning certain social situations in the real world was reduced by 50 percent after just one VR coaching session, according to a British study. Since VR therapies have the advantage of being automatable, patients don’t have to be put on a long “real-life” therapy waiting list anymore.

Smarter living for seniors© The Washington Post/ Getty
Social robots

Social acceptance of service robots for seniors is making slower progress in Europe than in the United States or the Far East, especially if they don’t look like robotic vacuum cleaners but resemble humans. In that case, expectations apparently change: robots are supposed to act proactively but without getting on the nerves of the persons they serve. The Dutch robot ethicist Aimee van Wynsberghe criticizes robotics development for putting too much emphasis on technical feasibility instead of on comprehensive human interaction. The key question must be “what should robots be doing to provide good care”? rather than “what are all the things they’re capable of doing”? In other words, robots as machines with emotions that prevent loneliness and may even speak the local dialect of the people they serve when asking them how they’re feeling. Or taking this thought even further: holograms that make it possible for old companions to be beamed back into people’s living rooms. This, of course, entails the recurring issue that new high-tech social robots including their cameras can only fulfil their tasks if we’re willing to accept a supposed loss of privacy. Talking about data protection. And what about costs? Will health insurance companies prefer to pay for robots rather than costly nursing staff someday? Obviously, the potential of robots as everyday helpers is huge but still calls for clear rules, because research is useless unless it’s accepted.

We have to ask ourselves: from an objective perspective, are human decisions really always better than those made by machines?

Prof. Holger Hanselk
3 questions for …

… Greta Silver (72). As a best-selling author, she wants to liberate the world from the gray haze of age. On her YouTube channel, she reaches millions of viewers and opens the best agers market to the corporate world.

Smarter living for seniors© Lotta Fotografie

AI robots loading dishwashers, VR headsets that take you to inaccessible places, new mobility concepts – which technology most effectively helps your generation stay agile?
I don’t buy technology. I buy freedom and a zest for life. Anything that helps is mega – anything that assists, facilitates, makes existing boundaries invisible and allows me to discover all-new worlds. I should enjoy using it and not feel embarrassed by it – like by a product that looks like it’s come from a medical store. It’s not the product that’s embarrassing but its discernible mission – the “why,” which is reflected in business, in products, in communication. That’s the button that changes the message.

How can acceptance of technical aids with seniors be raised?
Please don’t make any differences between young and old. We’ve been using aids all our lives, so we just continue doing so when we’re older, use whatever we can get our hands on to enjoy life. My message is that stair lifts don’t lead directly to the funeral home, but that they’re like a Ferrari – the car travels from A to B and the stair lift upstairs and downstairs – that’s all. Nobody loses their dignity just because their hips, their eyes or their knees aren’t working as well anymore as they used to. This is the message that businesses should use in addressing seniors: Hey, you’re no different!

What should be observed in the development of new technologies to meet the needs of seniors for more agility?
Anything that makes life easier makes sense and that’s what businesses are doing already. It’s just that they could communicate it in a much lighter vein. I find all products attractive that compensate for my weakness without carrying the stigma of “old” or “frail.” You may not need such products all the time, but when you do, they bring fun or freedom back into life.