The world is getting old – and this means not just our planet Earth but also the population inhabiting it. As human life expectancy steadily increases aided by advances in medical science and informed lifestyle choices, we are looking at a situation where the elders in society will soon outweigh the younger population. In the US alone, the number of people above the age of 65 will grow by 26% within the year 2050. Similar growth is expected in almost all developed countries, and the rapidly developing countries are catching up fast – because developmental work largely focuses on health and education – which, in turn, is bound to increase lifespans.
But who will look after all this aged people? The elderly need care and support, and that involves cost, time and expertise. While cost is something that has its own paradigm altogether, time and expertise are factors which are acutely in short supply. As birth rate falls, our families shrink and individual responsibilities increase. The extended families of the past accepted elders at home as part of life – and not as added liabilities unless incapacitated or senile. However, nuclear families and complex healthcare activities available today prompt family members to hire trained healthcare support at a premium. Even if a family can afford quality healthcare, the availability of trained elder care support is still far short of what the world needs. The sheer pressure of statistics is telling, as the gap between the number of available caregivers and the world’s aging population continues to widen.
According to global estimates, there are currently around seven people within the age group of 45-64 to look after each 80-plus person. This is going to come down to four people by 2030 and three by 2050. What happens further ahead is anybody’s guess!
More and more scientists are becoming convinced that fully functional autonomous mobile robots are the only viable solution. Such robots will be equipped with state-of-the-art navigation, sensory and perception systems to perform simple tasks like picking up a remote control or offering a pill box, as well as complex procedures like checking body temperature or identifying vital signs of illness through sophisticated facial recognition technology.
Although in isolation, companies have already started investing in elder care robots. The industry is still at a nascent stage and different companies are concentrating on specialized components of such robots. While Jibo is posed as the “world’s first social robot for home”, Vecna Robotics strives to create the “most powerful humanoid robot in the world”, and Waypoint Robotics attempts to optimize the mobility actions of autonomous elder care robots.
Based on the company’s focus area, the outcome varies. Jibo is more into social and emotional support without complex movements; Vecna’s BEAR (Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot) with its hydraulic systems and high-power capabilities has military uses that can be harnessed to elder care; and Waypoint directly focuses on assistive robotics with mobile manipulation capabilities.
As research progresses, industry trends suggest that future elder care robots will not only limit their operations to physical assistance – they would be interconnected to control home appliances, enhanced with algorithms to make medical diagnostics, and also serve as networked devices to sound an alarm or seek medical guidance.
After all, there can be no progress without our elders – and technology is taking note of the fact!