An attendee views the DJI Phantom 3 Standard at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, the US. Drones are one of many approaches being studied to use technology to help ageing people. Picture: BLOOMBERG/DAVID PAUL MORRIS
An attendee views the DJI Phantom 3 Standard at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, the US. Drones are one of many approaches being studied to use technology to help ageing people. Picture: BLOOMBERG/DAVID PAUL MORRIS

THE ranks of older and frail adults are growing rapidly in the developed world, raising alarms about how society will help them take care of themselves in their own homes. Naira Hovakimyan has an idea: drones.

The University of Illinois roboticist has received a $1.5m grant from the US National Science Foundation to explore the idea of designing small autonomous drones to perform simple household chores, such as retrieving a bottle of medicine from another room.

Hovakimyan acknowledges the idea might seem off-putting to many people, but she believes drones will be safe and will become an everyday fixture in elder care within a decade or two. "I’m convinced that within 20 years, drones will be today’s cellphones," she says.

Her research is just one example of many approaches being studied to use technology to help ageing people.

Roboticists and doctors predict a new wave of advances in computerised, robotic and internet-connected technologies will be available in coming years to help older adults stay at home longer.

"Loneliness is at epidemic levels among elders in the US today," says Juliet Holt Klinger, senior director of dementia care and programmes at Brookdale Senior Living, one of the country’s largest providers of assisted living and home care.

Brookdale is using several of internet-connected services to help ageing clients stay more closely connected with family and friends. Holt Klinger says there is growing evidence that staying connected, even electronically, offsets the cognitive decline associated with ageing. "We have story after story of reconnection with families through Skype," Klinger adds.

Sceptics note many ideas are "technologies looking for a solution" that inevitably fail the test of practicality.

"We all get really excited on the upside, and then we go through this trough of disillusionment," says Laurie Orlov, a business analyst who writes the Aging in Place Technology Watch.

Even so, examples of robotic and artificial-intelligence-derived technologies that will be commercially available in the next decade include intelligent walkers, smart pendants that track falls and "wandering", room and home sensors that monitor health status, balancing aids, virtual and robotic electronic companions, and even drones.

In her lab, Hovakimyan has begun experimenting with small and large drones. She refers to them as "Bibbidi Bobbidi Bots", borrowing a phrase from the film Cinderella to make them seem less intimidating. Last month, in the Nicer Robotics laboratory at the University of Illinois, researchers began experimenting with an Oculus Rift virtual reality viewer to show people how it might feel to be close to a small drone. She believes that drones could ultimately be used to perform all manner of household chores, such as reaching under a table to grab an object, cleaning chandeliers and weeding the lawn.

Many others are trying to devise solutions as well. In a crowded four-room laboratory in south Seattle, the former Microsoft software designer and executive Tandy Trower is experimenting with a 1.2m-tall rolling robot he calls Robby. With cameras, radar, microphone, speaker, a tablet interface and a moveable tray, Robby may someday be able to serve as a mobile companion and even perform some light chores.

Trower says the robot, now a prototype in his Hoaloha Robotics laboratory, would be able to monitor the health of its human companion and assist with tasks such as keeping track of medicines. Its screen could also be used for video conferences with physicians and other health-care providers.

He says that the science-fiction future of elder-care robots is closer than many people believe.

"Rather than seeing the train in the distance, we’re seeing the light shining in our face right now," he says.

Toyota Motor said last month in November that it would spend $1bn to establish a new research laboratory adjacent to Stanford University to focus on artificial intelligence, underscoring the company’s view that it should be added to cars to make human drivers safer rather than to replace them.

The hope is that such technologies will make it possible for ageing people to drive safely longer.

"Driver assistance will turn cars into elder-care robots in a very positive sense," said Rodney Brooks, a pioneering roboticist and a former director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. "In the US, when you can’t drive any longer, you’ve lost your independence."

The need for such technology will grow sharply, given the broad demographic shifts sweeping through the world’s population.

An ageing population will place enormous burdens on the world’s health-care system by 2050, according to demographers. Already, for the first time in history, 14% of the world’s population is older than 65, a sharp contrast with the 9.1% of the population that is less than five years old.

Globally, the number of people 60 and over is expected to more than double by 2050 and triple by 2100. The number of people 80 and above is expected to double by 2050 and increase more than sevenfold by the end of the century. Despite a patchwork of research and some commercial products, the US appears to be lagging behind Japan and Europe in developing solutions.

"In Japan and Europe … government is more attuned to the potential of technology for ageing populations," said Jeffrey Kaye, a neurologist at Oregon Health & Science University who focuses on technologies for the ageing.

China reached out more than a decade ago to Eric Dishman, an Intel scientist who has focused on developing technologies to assist older adults. "Now I have a team in China working with third parties, collaborating on their Age Friendly City Initiative," Dishman says. That has led to the installation of sensors in homes to monitor as many as 100,000 people.

The Intel China project uses so-called machine-learning techniques, charting patterns of behaviour for caregivers. "Your daily patterns are a vital sign," Dishman says.

In addition to smart-home sensors and mobile robots, there are several of other efforts to add stationary robots to provide everything from coaching to communications to companionship.

Catalia Health, a San Francisco-based design company, has introduced the Mabu personal health-care companion, an interactive robot about the size of a coffeepot. The system, which has a cartoonish form, listens and speaks and holds a touch-tablet interface. It is designed to act both as a health-care coach and to provide a way to stay in touch with doctor’s offices and pharmacies.

"My approach is, ‘Here are the challenges we see in healthcare. What is the right technology?’" says Cory Kidd, CE of the start-up. "Robots happen to be great for helping with behaviour."

A more profound question is whether robots or virtual assistants, in tandem with internet communications, can help forestall the effects of ageing, such as dementia. Isolation is one of the most vexing problems for older adults, and there is evidence that human contact can postpone intellectual decline.

A study published last winter in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia found that a group of both healthy and mildly cognitively impaired people in their 70s and 80s who engaged in face-to-face daily online conversations for six weeks showed significant improvements in cognitive skills compared with a control group.

"It is not possible to simply tell people to go out and get more friends, so the idea here was to provide a meaningful and frequent dose of social engagement," says Kaye, the Oregon Health & Science neurologist who helped organise the study.

Internet, tablet and smartphone systems such as grandPad, a simplified tablet for older adults, and CareAngel, a telephone system to help younger family members stay connected, are emerging to help with care and staving off isolation.

The ultimate test for all these ideas will be whether people will want to use them. At the Aging 2.0 Conference in San Francisco in November that focused on new elder-care technologies, Cynthia Breazeal, an MIT Media Lab roboticist, showed off Jibo, an internet-connected table-top robot with a round swivelling screen that portrays a friendly robotic face.

The concept did not thrill everyone in the large lunch-time audience. During a question-and-answer session at the end of the presentation, a 91-year-old woman said, "If Jibo were my last friend, I would be very depressed."

New York Times