The United Nations estimates that the global population of elderly individuals will increase 56 percent by 2030. However, the number of professional caregivers is expected to fall short.
Researchers at Oklahoma State University believe that robots could be the key to meeting the growing demand for caregivers. Engineering professor Weihua Sheng and his team are developing robots that are able to provide companionship to elderly individuals and detect potential problems.
The first model is an interactive tabletop robot designed along the lines of home assistants like Alexa or Google. The robot’s capabilities include asking questions, logging vital statistics and having the ability to detect falls. After finding out where the fall occurred, the robot can then contact the person’s doctor. The second prototype is a mobile robot that is equipped to move through a single-story house.
Sheng said his project aims to improve the lives of elderly people and enable them to be more independent. “Because of the shortage of nurses and doctors and home health care providers . . . many older adults are not able to access those kinds of caregiver resources,” he said. “That’s why we need technology to help them.”
One of the main issues with robot caregiving is a lack of empathy and emotional connection with patients. Sheng and his team are planning to address that by conducting trials at a retirement community.
“We’re trying to improve the intelligence of the robots so they can recognize emotions and facial expressions, which can provide a context for the human-robot conversation,” said Sheng. He predicts similar robots will be available for sale in the next decade or so at a price point ranging from $1,000 to $2,000. Although robots are unlikely to take over the entirety of caregiving, they may help lighten the load on caregivers in the future.