By: Oliver Mitchell
The Financial Times recently wrote a four-part series on “Robots: Friend or Foe?” The editors agree that the Robolution is now a matter of time, as we stand on the precipice of an automated world. While the cynics, and possibly Donald Trump as well, cry in panic at the loss of jobs, others see huge gains in the quality of life for the most fragile citizens.
In his FT opinion piece, Andrew McAfee of MIT writes, “Many people are not workers at all; they are children or pensioners, the sick or infirm. For these groups, technological progress is a virtually unalloyed good. It will allow the elderly to lead more autonomous lives (think of a self-driving car that will let them visit friends and relatives, for example), while letting their families closely monitor them and intervene if they fall or become disorientated. It will let children learn what they want at their own pace. It will let us tailor medical treatments to individuals, rather than simply doing what works best on average.”
While in the past I have written about the social impact of robotics, this week I will drill down and profile advancements being made for our largest demographic group – the elderly.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. In the absence of any medical breakthroughs to prevent, slow or stop the disease, this number is predicted to rise to 13 million by 2025. The last two generations have produced far fewer children than our grandparents’ generation. This translates into a lack of people who can provide care for our ever-growing aging population. Additionally, as people live longer, they often need more care for a longer period of time. This includes nearly all elders—not just those with Alzheimer’s.
To ease this crunch, companies are experimenting with robots that can be programmed to complete a number of household and caregiving tasks, as well as call 911 in an emergency. The Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing, where researchers identify and test new elder care technologies, has conducted a significant amount of analysis of animal-based therapy for aging adults.
“We tested two PARO robot pets (above) for a pilot project at the Sunny View Care Center and Memory Care Unit in the San Francisco Bay Area,” says Davis Park, director of the Front Porch Center. The pilot ended recently and the initial findings suggest that engaging with the pet robot reduced pacing and anxiety, and helped calm older residents. “The robots were even used in place of psychotropic drugs,” Parks said. “The average amount of time people spent with the robots was up to 25 minutes, which is usually enough time for people to pay attention to it and become socially engaged, whether they’re talking to PARO or engaging with people around them.”
While no caregiver is suggesting that a machine replace the human touch, all seem to agree that these are additive enhancements that can add to their well-being. As with most things, balance and caution should be used if we are to successfully blend robotic assistance with human care. While thankfully not every senior is suffering from dementia, many live their lives normally but unfortunately have lost the ability to be fully independent.
According to the AARP by the year 2030, 70 million Americans in the U.S. will be over age 65—and 85-90 percent of them will be licensed to drive. However, 80 percent of people in their 70s suffer from arthritis—crippling inflammation of the joints which makes turning, flexing and twisting painful. Weaker muscles, reduced flexibility and limited range of motion restrict senior drivers’ ability to grip and turn the steering wheel, press the accelerator or brake, or reach to open doors and windows. More than 75 percent of drivers age 65 or older report using one or more medications that impact driving performance. In 2009, more than 60 percent of deaths in crashes involving drivers above age 70 were older drivers themselves.
The solution for seniors to keep their independence, safely, is a fully autonomous car (or level 4 self-driving). According to the NHTSA, level 4 is defined as “Full Self-Driving Automation,” whereby “the vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles.” Perfect for seniors, but the only problem is that no car company is currently focused on level 4. Most are working to implement level 3 or “Limited Self-Driving Automation” like the Tesla Model S.
Alphabet (Google’s parent) is not a car company and is focused entirely on level 4, with 70 cars on the road to date in California, Washington, Texas, and Arizona driving over 1.5 million miles. Detroit is taking notice, as just this week Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV agreed to incorporate Alphabet’s self-driving technology into 100 Chrysler minivans, significantly expanding the tech giant’s test fleet of driverless vehicles and marking its first partnership with a major auto maker.
Alphabet and Fiat Chrysler engineers will collaborate in Michigan to redesign the 2017 Pacifica Hybrid minivan to integrate Alphabet’s computers, sensors and software, the companies said. The minivans, like Alphabet’s other self-driving cars, will be solely for testing. According to Mobility Works (the largest wheelchair accessible vehicle dealer in America) minivans are the most popular vehicles for disabled drivers. The dealership is eagerly awaiting the introduction of the “2017 Chrysler Pacifica” as it replaces the Grand Caravan and the Town and Country.
Alphabet aims to have the first driverless minivans on the road by year’s end but declined to provide a timeline for all 100 vehicles. I feel that the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica indicates that the first level 4 models to roll of the factory floor will be targeted at improving the lives of the elderly and disabled.
The deal is also a small but critical win for Fiat Chrysler, which has been viewed as lagging in rapidly advancing driverless technology. Other major automakers, like Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Co., are investing in their own (level 3) driverless car technology, and have generally been hesitant to work with Alphabet. However, Fiat Chrysler Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne has resisted developing autonomous technologies, preferring to team up or buy what he needs later.
In a statement, the head of Alphabet’s driverless-car efforts, former auto executive John Krafcik, said Fiat Chrysler’s “nimble and experienced engineering team” will help Alphabet “accelerate our efforts to develop a fully self-driving car.” Mr. Marchionne added in the release: “The experience both companies gain will be fundamental to delivering automotive technology solutions.”
Alphabet and Fiat Chrysler want to have at least one prototype operational around the time of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, according to two people briefed on the matter. For the first time next year, the show will include space and a test track area for autonomous vehicles.
The vehicles will be built at the Windsor, Ontario plant that manufactures the Pacifica. Mr. Marchionne is scheduled to make an appearance at the Windsor plant on Friday to celebrate the launch of the 2017 minivan. Fiat Chrysler will build Pacifica minivans to enable easy integration of Alphabet’s technology, which includes computers, sensors and software, according to the person.
The cars will just be for testing, and Alphabet won’t sell any of the minivans, this person said. Alphabet expects to start taking the cars over the next several months, the person added. Could 2020 be the year when the level 4, fully autonomous, handicapped accessible Pacifica hits the roads?
Robots like Paro and Alphabet’s level 4 autonomy are only the beginning: in the next two decades we will see a series of companion robots (like Pepper above) to help our growing senior population. In addition to Pepper, Asimo and others, Panasonic has created a hair-washing robot, a drug delivery robot, a robotic bed, and HOSPI-Rimo, a robot with a touchscreen that helps hospital patients communicate with doctors and family.
Professor Ashutosh Saxena of Cornell University predicts that armless robots—capable of communicating verbally with the elderly and observing them in case of accidents—will hit the market within the next five years (think Jibo). These kinds of robots, which could even monitor a person’s medication intake (AI Cure), should allow elderly people to live independently and healthily longer, like a very sophisticated Life Alert bracelet. Fully functional robots with arms, he believes will be available within 10 years as Saxena’s lab is building Kodiak, the precursor to Frank’s VGC-6OL