Rise of the (assistive) machines

We take a look at some of the new players in this important socially assistive robots (SARs) Agetech sector.

Recently we covered the rise of Stevie, an assistive robot who has moved beyond the lab and into retirement homes (and the cover of TIME magazine).

According to the UN, one in six people in the world will be over age 65 (16%) by 2050, an increase from one in 11 in 2019 (9%) [1]. As the geriatric market grows, so too does the need for technology that can be applied to social care both for physical and social needs.

Longevity.Technology: There is a demonstrable need for affordable independent-living assistance and this need will only get bigger as the population ages. Have researchers been able to overcome the highly-complex technology to create robots that can roll off the assembly line and straight into homes and facilities? We take a look at some of the contenders.

Socially assistive robots (SARs) can provide many functions whether they are used in a care home or to enable independent living. They monitor and assist daily routines, giving reminders about exercise, meals and medication. The robots also provide vital social interaction, making suggestions for activities and encouraging discourse. Combating loneliness can be key to keeping the mind active and slowing cognitive decline and socially assistive robots can play a crucial role in this.

As robotics and AI become increasingly sophisticated, SARs will be able to help with physical chores as well, from washing and dressing, to wound hygiene and massage, as well as assisting with physical fitness – lack of physical activity is estimated to contribute to approximately 3.2 million premature deaths annually worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation [2].

As well as deploying robotic research in wheelchairs and exoskeletons, the University of Pittsburgh & Carnegie Mellon University have developed the Pearl nurse robot. This is both a personal and social robot, designed to help the elderly carry out their daily routines.

Early-stage tech company Labrador Systems has closed a $2m pre-seed round led by SOSV’s hardware accelerator HAX, in partnership with Centrica Hive, with participation from Amazon’s Alexa Fund, iRobot Ventures and iD Ventures America, this funding is to develop a new generation of assistive robots, that will foster independent living and support home health. Pilot studies are set for next year.

Video credit: Labrador Systems

Waypoint Robotics, in collaboration with Stanley Innovation, is tackling one of the robot obstacles – scaleability. The company is developing a method to optimise the mobility part of autonomous eldercare and is creating mobile robotic platforms that are both adaptable and scaleable.

Robotteca launched its specialised socially assistive robots earlier this year. With robots designed for paediatric care in hospitals, care for neuroatypical patients and for increasing community and engagement among the elderly, the company is demonstrating real innovation.

Governments are paying attention too – in the US, the National Science Foundation has invested in the development of eldercare service robots that will help to increase mobility in elder patients.

Japan-based Cyberdyne is developing the the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) – a cyborg-type robot that is described as a “fusion of man, machine and information”. The company aims for HAL to provide greater mobility for the physically challenge and although a step beyond an assistive robot, could indicated the direction for future research.

Cyberdyne robot
Image credit: Cyberdyne

The market is somewhat affected by a lack of social awareness about the benefits of adopting assistive robots as well as a fear of the unknown. Companies will need to address the perceptions of robots, especially among the elderly, in order for this field to achieve its full potential, which could, according to Management Today, be “the investment opportunity of the 2020s [3].”

[1] http://bit.ly/2sE000P
[2] https://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/factsheet_inactivity/en/
[3] http://bit.ly/35DIpoj