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Robots for Our Old Age

iRobot’s CEO says robots will help the elderly and infirm live independently, for longer.

Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, gave a keynote talk last month at the 2010 Connected Health Symposium in Boston. He didn’t say what the company is working on in its new healthcare robots business unit, but he predicted robots will have a crucial role to play in the future of healthcare. Angle said that assistive robots will enable old or sick people to live independently for longer.

“The cost path we are on in healthcare is not sustainable,” Angle said during his speech. He pointed to figures showing that the elderly often have chronic health issues that require expensive assisted living programs or nursing homes. “The numbers of seniors are going up and our ability to care for them is going down,” said Angle.

Even without a chronic illness, common tasks, such as cleaning the house become more difficult for the elderly. And informal care giving by relatives can take a lot of time, and put stress on a family. “Growing old is a physical problem and needs a physical solution,” Angle said. “We need a robot to go out and do physical stuff for us in order to live independently and not end up in a nursing home.”

The challenges of developing such a robot are substantial. It would encounter a variety of unexpected and unpredictable situations, so it would need to be flexible and adaptable—able to move around in a messy room, pick up unfamiliar objects, or open doors. Some research robots have demonstrated a few such skills, but there is nothing that can do them all.

A home-help robot could also deliver remote medical care, Angle noted. A robot equipped with a blood pressure detector, stethoscope, a camera, and other low-cost equipment could allow doctors to perform routine check-ups remotely.

I would guess that iRobot plans to release a telepresence robot that can perform some of these functions in the next few years. Several other companies have recently launched telepresence robots—essentially video-conferencing systems on wheels—and iRobot’s now cancelled ConnectR project was an early effort in this area.

Bill Townsend, CEO of Barrett Technology, which makes robotic hands and arms, listened to Angle’s talk. He predicts that, within 20 to 30 years, home-help robots will be a part of everyday life. “If anyone can do it, it would be iRobot,” Townsend said.

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