IBM, Rice University working on Watson-powered robot to help elderly

'Aging in place' initiative in Austin, Texas, explores ways to approach eldercare, while in Italy IBM teams up with Sole Cooperative to study how Internet of Things might improve senior housing
By Bernie Monegain
11:26 AM

Could cognitive computing, the likes of which IBM Watson is known for, transform how the elderly are cared for? IBM seems confident it could. IBM Research announced December 8 that it is working with Rice University to create a prototype IBM Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot.

The robot, known as IBM MERA, is a Watson-enabled application designed to help the elderly and their caregivers.

IBM Research also has plans to work with Sole Cooperativa, an independent healthcare provider in Italy, to equip senior housing with sensors to monitor day-to-day activities of its residents.

IBM executives point out that according to the United Nations, the number of people 60 years old or older is projected to grow by 56 percent worldwide by 2030. To help improve eldercare resulting from this rapidly growing demographic, IBM Research has added an "Aging in Place" component to its ThinkLab in Austin, Texas.

By leveraging IBM MERA, the Internet of Things, and other cognitive-powered technologies, IBM researchers figure they can study how data from atmospheric, motion and falling, audio and olfactory sensors could be used by caregivers to improve healthcare and wellness.

"Now is the time to invest in, care for, protect, and empower our aging population so they can live more independent lives," Arvind Krishna, senior vice president, IBM Research, said in a statement.

"Our new research on 'embodied cognition,' which can combine real-time data generated by sensors with cognitive computing, will explore how to provide clinicians and caregivers with insights that could help them make better care decisions for their patients."

The IBM MERA prototype was created with students and faculty from Rice University's departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Psychology. It will be used to help study innovative ways of measuring an individual's vital signs, such as heart rate, heart rate variability and respiratory rate; answer basic health-related questions; and determine if an individual has fallen by reading the results of an accelerometer.

Running on the IBM Cloud and a Softbank Pepper robot interface, IBM MERA uses IBM Watson technologies and CameraVitals, a technology designed at Rice University to calculate vital signs by recording video of a person's face.

These technologies allow IBM MERA to obtain fast, noninvasive readings on a patient's heart and breathing measurements that can be done multiple times per day. Combined with IBM Watson Speech to Text and Text to Speech APIs, the camera can also view if a fall has occurred and provide information for caregivers.

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