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These Robots Want to Help Seniors Live Independently as They Age

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Photo by Jack Plunkett/Feature Photo Service for IBM
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George Chen, a Rice University PhD student, has his heart and respiratory rates measured by a prototype IBM Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant at the company's North Austin lab.

These days, many Americans would prefer to “age in place” – or stay in their home as long as they can live safely, independently and comfortably. How long will depend on each individual, but there’s a lab in Austin hoping to extend the timeline for all of us – with robots.

In North Austin, researchers at IBM are working on ways to apply robotics, artificial intelligence and existing technology to helping seniors age in place.

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Credit Jimmy Maas / KUT
A data screen next to bed at IBM's "Aging In Place" lab in Austin.

Nationally, the population is getting older. By  2040, one fifth of Americans will be older than 65. The IBM lab is aimed at integrating existing technology, like sensors, cameras and facial recognition software, with technology they’re developing with Rice University. They’re working on the Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant, or MERA, hoping it can help where stationary monitoring can’t, like in the case of a fall.

“Maybe the robot can take my picture and send it to Flickr or send a text,” said John Sanchez, an architect at IBM Research. “You can also do more investigation. You might have a stationary camera do the same thing, but in this demo, he’s a little more sophisticated and he can move around a little bit.”

IBM researchers are currently using commercially-available tech products and services, like the Nao robot and Flickr, to give researchers an idea how they would integrate MERA and other proprietary products with them down the road.

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Credit Jimmy Maas / KUT
A Nao robot, made by Aldebaran Robotics, stands in the lab for MERA at IBM's North Austin Lab

IBM is also partnering with Sole Cooperitiva, an assisted living company in Italy, to test MERA in the field. Researchers hope to compile data to help create one-stop, easy-to-use, ultimate smart home for us all to grow old in.

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