And now, a soft exoskeleton

A two-fer from Harvard’s Wyss Institute this week. In addition to developing an artificial spleen, researchers there just received a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant for an exoskeleton. What distinguishes this device from other exoskeletons we’ve written about—and makes it of likely more benefit to seniors—is that this so-called “Soft Exosuit” supports the leg muscles with flexible fabric, rather than rigid materials.

If that sounds merely like a longer version of a back support belt, what makes it worth a government grant is the embedded sensor system, which continuously measures the wearer’s position, the suit’s tension, and other factors. No doubt, given the advances in medical monitoring, later versions will be able to track vital signs and detect more detailed aspects of movement.

Indeed, Harvard promises in its press release, “the team will collaborate with clinical partners to develop a medical version of the suit that can help stroke patients, for example, who often experience a slow, inefficient gait and could greatly benefit from walking assistance.”  While the Soft Exosuit should have a promising future as both a diagnostic and an assistive device, it’s still in prototype phase.

The ReWalk exoskeleton, by contrast, has just had “the best performing IPO of the year.” Their stock has been as high as nearly $44 a share and closed today at $33.20.  We wish all involved well, and we hope the cash infusion can help the company develop their device into a less cumbersome–and less expensive–solution.



SDCs–Self-Driving Cars

The most exciting development everyone in this room is going to live to see is driverless cars.

USC Professor Jeffrey Cole to AARP Ideas@50+ audience.

One of the biggest fears of getting older is losing the ability to drive. For those with enough money, that problem is getting closer to being solved. Mercedes Benz already offers enhanced “Intelligent Drive,” and GM has just announced that starting in the 2017 model year, Cadillacs will come equipped with an auto-pilot mode, which they will eventually offer on all their brands.

Many other manufacturers, including Nissan and Acura, have self-driving cars in the works, although the first generation offerings might better be described as “assisted driving,” since the driver in still in control of when to use the technology. For example, the Cadillac, as described in the Los Angeles Times, relies on the driver to determine when assistance is needed: “The system will allow drivers to switch the vehicle into a semi-automated mode in which it will automatically keep the car in its lane, making necessary steering adjustments, and autonomously trigger braking and speed control to maintain a safe distance from other vehicles.”

Most famously, Google has been piloting self-driving cars for several years, leading both the California legislature and insurance agencies to start thinking about questions of liability in accidents.Continue Reading

Technological Solutions for Patient Lifting

One of the greatest dangers for both professional and non-professional caregivers is lifting patients, so much so that a bill was introduced in Congress last year to eliminate manual patient handling. While the bill still awaits passage, there are some interesting alternatives on the technology front.

For the last several years, Japan’s RIKEN Institute, in collaboration with Tokai Rubber Industries, Ltd., has been testing RIBA (Robot for Interactive Body Assistance), a carebot that can lift patients. Its latest iteration, RIBA-II, announced in 2011, can lift a person weighing up to 176 pounds straight from the floor. Unfortunately, it still looks like one of Darth Vader’s stormtroopers crossed with a toy bear.

Another approach is to eliminate the need for lifting entirely. Panasonic is marketing Resyone, a wheelchair that transforms into a flat-bed (not unlike a first class airline seat). It recently earned global safety standard ISO13482 approval, a first for a service robot.

This might work. Image courtesy of Daewoo.

This might work. Image courtesy of Daewoo.

In a robotics advance on the load-bearing belt, South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering has created an exoskeleton for their shipyard workers. Already in use, it allows workers to lift materials weighing up to 70 pounds, with plans to increase the load capacity to 200 pounds. It’s not hard to imagine a version that could be employed in hospitals and other medical settings.

Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, most of these solutions will likely be available at price points that only make them practical for institutions. In the meantime, please remember that the medical literature is filled with grim studies of injuries sustained by caregivers who tried to move bedridden or seated patients. One of those studies offers this cautionary description: “In a perfect world, a ‘safe’ lift would be 51 pounds if the object is within 7 inches from the front of the body, if it is at waist height, if it is directly in front of the person, if there is a handle on the object, and if the load inside the box/bucket doesn’t shift once lifted.” In other words, don’t be afraid to ask for help.



JIBO: A new world of robot apps?

Despite its record-breaking crowd-sourced funding, it’s hard not to see social robot JIBO as anything but a novelty appliance without a long-term impact. With its retro-future resemblance to a Videosphere, it just feels like something that will be an upscale must have for a year or two and then, along with ice cream makers and rowing machines, become part of the garage sale circuit.

But there is one aspect that could save it from trend oblivion. JIBO isn’t simply a piece of pre-programmed hardware, but a robot with a full-fledged operating system. Developers are invited to create programs for it—and it is in this respect, as perhaps the first device to allow for the popular creation of robot apps, that JIBO may radically change the adoption of robots. In other words, don’t think of it as a more fully featured Roomba, but as an Android or iOS phone in a more responsive form.

Still, that opens another question: Most of the suggested uses for JIBO, such as delivering messages or giving reminders, could be performed by a phone app. There are, however, some unique features that could increase its usefulness and adoption. Its facial recognition software allows it to tell people apart, while its swiveling head allows it to track individuals as they move about a room. While we remain skeptical about its value as a digital companion, these features could allow it to become an excellent telepresence bot for families concerned about relatives who are aging-in-place.

In addition, it can be trained to recognize voices as well as faces. Given that certain conditions, such as Parkinson’s Disease, are initially indicated by changes in voice, we can also foresee custom diagnostic apps that could make JIBO a valuable health-monitoring device.


Will we really accept robot caregivers?

Author and physician Louise Aronson writes in the New York Times that America needs the kinds of robot caregivers being used in Japan, yet three years ago the BBC reported that the Japanese were actually rejecting robots: “We want humans caring for us, not machines,” said one patient.

Undaunted, in June, Japan’s Softbank began demonstrating Pepper, a glossy white plastic humanoid robot with big black eyes that looks like the love child of Sailor Moon and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Although it is supposed to be able to react to human emotions, the prototype, described in detail by Sam Byford for The Verge, does not do much to reassure us of Dr. Aronson’s thesis.

Paradoxically, while patients are rejecting humanoid robots, they’re embracing an animal one.


Paro. Awwwww…

The therapeutic robot Paro, which looks like a heartbreakingly cute baby seal, has become a darling of nursing homes. One study showed Paro had more patient interactions than an actual, living dog. It also has the advantages of not triggering allergies or creating “accidents.” Notably, patients talked more about Paro than the dog, so the robot was credited with inspiring social interactions among patients, yet it’s worth questioning if that’s a novelty effect that may diminish.

Perhaps the acceptance of Paro isn’t merely because it’s so damn cute. Maybe there’s a temporal uncanny valley that makes us prefer animal companion robots to humanoid ones: Toy-like furry critters take you back to the familial warmth of childhood, while humanoid machines are nasty reminders of a lonely present.

Indeed, the NIMBY-ish responses in a study from Sweden  suggest that robots will never truly replace the emotional component: “The participants perceived that having a robot might be ‘good for others but not themselves,’…while their relatives and informal caregivers perceived a robot as ‘not for my relative but for other older people’”.


Prototype Robotic Fingers from MIT

MIT is showing off a robotic hand extension. Worn like a glove, the prototype is not intended as a prosthesis so much as an enhancement: Instead of replacing lost fingers, it gives the wearer two long, flexible prongs that act as stronger additional fingers.

The current version is both bulky and awkward, but Harry Asada, the Ford Professor of Engineering in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, says in a press release, “This is a prototype, but we can shrink it down to one-third its size, and make it foldable. We could make this into a watch or a bracelet where the fingers pop up, and when the job is done, they come back into the watch. Wearable robots are a way to bring the robot closer to our daily life.”

Yup, folks, it took no less than MIT to figure out how arthritis sufferers could open child-proof caps.



Exoskeletons: Bionic Breakthroughs and Thoughtful Objections

Exoskeletons are touted as the breakthrough that will get those with spinal cord injuries to walk again. An academic prototype, controlled by brain waves, was featured at the beginning of the World Cup, and ReWalk, a commercial version from an Israeli-American company, recently became the first exoskeleton approved by the FDA for daily use in the United States. It’s been sold in other countries for three years already.

Yet nearly every person we’ve seen pictured wearing one was young or at most middle-aged. Worse, exoskeleton users need to balance on crutches, which actually leaves their hands less free than using a wheelchair. In fact, ReWalk’s own developer isn’t a candidate for it, because he can’t use his arms.

Granted, for hiking, as TEDx speaker Amanda Boxtel plans to use the Ekso Bionics’s exoskeleton, the crutches would serve nearly the same function as hiking poles.

Charles Engelbert Photography (970) 379-2005

Amanda Boxtel in Exoskeleton. Is this geniunely as cool as it looks?

As robotics advances, no doubt exoskeletons will become less cumbersome and their batteries will last longer than a reported two-to-three hours. Already since ReWalk’s 2008 prototype, the controller has shrunken from covering half the forearm to the size of a wristwatch. Perhaps lighter, sleeker, stronger versions will make the devices more suitable for those who are too frail to haul themselves on crutches. Perhaps later versions will not require crutches for balance. Most of all, perhaps later versions will cost considerably less than the nearly $60k of these first generation units.

Or perhaps none of that is necessary. Despite Time magazine naming it “among the top 25 best inventions in 2013,” not everyone who uses a wheelchair is exulting over exoskeletons. New Zealand teacher Red Nicholson says, “I have no more desire to be strapped to a robot than I do to go swimming with great white sharks”

Anthropologist and disability rights activist William Peace, author of the blog “Bad Cripple,” questions their value with some very serious number-crunching. What’s truly important for those with SCI, both he and medical experts agree, is to reduce “secondary medical complications caused by an extreme sedentary lifestyle,” such as life-threatening infections caused by bed sores and urinary and bowel dysfunctions.

In contrast to the 60k cost of ReWalk, writes Peace, the price of the required equipment to ensure exercise would be: “$11,000 wheelchair, $500 wheelchair cushion, a $5,000 handcycle, a $4,000 sit ski… Total material costs are a little over $20,000.”

That’s three complete packages for the price of one ReWalk, a device that isn’t even suitable for everyone who uses a wheelchair.




Telepresence is Priority

The Wall Street Journal asked Marc Agronin, noted geriatric psychiatrist and the author of How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old, what piece of technology he thought would be the biggest help to seniors.

His answer was telepresence, which is already implemented in hospitals and is being experimented with in homes. He rightly cautions that the technology must be adapted to those with “sensory deficits. Such adaptations should include voice activation, easily navigated menus, interactive operators, remote troubleshooting, simple keyboards, sophisticated volume controls and projection, and extra large high definition screens.”

Telepresence is a strange little buzzword. When it comes right down to it, we’re talking about a two-way video monitor mounted on a remote-controlled base, and many of the elements Agronin cites already exist. How hard would it be to download Skype onto a tablet, mount it on a toy car controllable over the Net, and create a reasonably useful telepresence bot for under a grand?

Electrical engineer Jon Bennett is half-way there. He’s long had a website that gives detailed instructions for how to build aR remote-controlled car. He agrees it would be possible to, “hack something inexpensive together,” but cautions,  “It wouldn’t get FDA approval and you wouldn’t be able to sell it to anyone.”


Way cheaper than a (real) one of these.

Foregoing the commercial medical market, if you have a background in EE or robotics, and would like to check on elderly relatives and their living conditions, it’s something to think about. As Agronin says, “An entire industry of telepresence volunteers and services could be created to serve the exploding population of aging individuals.” 








Aging in Distance

From the Chinese journal China Media Research comes a new term-of-art to consider: “Aging in Distance.” They’re contrasting “aging in place” with the experience of those who will be aging outside of their home countries, far from their native cultures and immediate families.


They are calling for papers to address the topic in a special issue of the journal to be published early next year. Deadline for abstract submission is July 25, 2014.

“We would welcome papers that enhance our understanding of how age and ageing is perceived in different cultures, what roles the mass media can play in constructing and perpetuating stereotypes about older people, how the formal model of community care can better link with the model of family care to form a culturally appropriate age-care model for immigrants in particular and the larger population in general. Topic areas include, but not limited to, stereotypes of older people; social media and older people; cultural assumptions of ageing and age-care; communication campaigns that enhance understanding between older and younger generations, mass media coverage of older people and audience effects, and cross-cultural adjustment of older migrants.”

Just for starters, we’d say teleprescence should certainly be a candidate topic.

Satellite photo of Earth, courtesy DMSP and NASA 


Uncanny Caring–the Future of Robots

The Japanese have been working on human assistance robots for over a decade, in response to the demographic squeeze of an aging population without enough people in the next generation to attend to their needs.

Toyota has been leading the way, building on their innovations in industrial robots, which date back to the 70s. Honda, which started in the 80s, has created Asimo, which it calls, “The World’s Most Advanced Humanoid Robot.” It can climb stairs, navigate environments, and learn the needs of humans. Asimo and Toyota’s Human Support Robots represent the ideal of “carebots,” robots which can replace or supplement the work of nursing home aids and other caregivers.


Yet for all their astonishing advances in mobility and responsiveness, all of them look like robots. The little lady to the right is Toyota’s Robina, who wouldn’t fool the Jetson’s Rosie.

Now, starring at Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, are Kodomoroid and Otoroid, two robots that seemed to have leapt the uncanny valley. If their soft faces and smooth skin are grafted on to assistance robots, we will be left wondering about our own humanity.

But there is still the very human question of price. In a 2011 story, the BBC cautioned that robots so far have been priced far too high to serve as the human replacements the Japanese had hoped for. Worse, “even in ‘robot friendly'” Japan, according to the article, patients prefer–who knew–being taken care of by human beings.

The most likely devices to receive widespread adoption are robotic aids for human tasks, such as lifters that can spare the back of an attending nurse and “go-fer” bots that can bring items to bed-ridden or paralyzed patients. None of these devices need to look human, but we wonder, if eventually there will be two paths of robotic development: budget bots that perform a limited range of dedicated tasks and make no pretensions of humanity, such as the current Roomba, and luxury models, that are the astonishing descendants of Kodomoroid.

There’s already a third way. There are bots that can be remotely operated, with “faces” that are two-way computer screens.  InTouch Health’s “remote presence devices” have already been in US hospitals for several years. As CNN reports, Europe is now testing prototypes of similar devices for home use. Since most of these devices are based on tablets mounted on a remotely controlled moving stand, they would seem to be an ideal project for DIY robotocists.