Would you let a robot care for your mother?

By Michelle Owusu
September 30, 2010

Michelle Owusu is a contributor for Reuters.com

The idea of sticking their parents in a nursing home weighs heavily on many Baby Boomers. Martin Spencer has a solution: robots.

“Many people quit good paying jobs to keep their beloved mother or father out of the horrors of a nursing home,” said Spencer, who created the CareBot, a 4-foot, 100-pound, robot with a screen for a face and wheels for legs that reminds owners to take their medication.

If necessary, the CareBot calls emergency contacts and dials 911 and is fitted with a webcam to allow purchasers the ability to monitor and have video chats with their elderly relatives from anywhere.

Spencer said the CareBot – the lone product of his Atlanta-based startup GeckoSystems – should be available next fall for between $12,000 and $15,000 – a price point he said should alleviate pressure on family budgets by paring down the “hidden costs” of the aging crisis. Spencer added the financial hit of quitting a full-time job to become a caregiver or putting a loved one in a retirement home quickly runs into the tens of thousands. The cost savings and peace of mind will guarantee CareBot a spot in the burgeoning personal robot market, he said.

The CareBot should be available by the second or third quarter next year said Spencer, who expects to sell 6,000 robots in the first 12 months. In-home trials have to date been successful. However, the firm still needs to raise $750,000 to build and market the first robots.

Like robot companions being developed by Honda and the European Union-funded CompanionAble project, the CareBot, which took 12 years and cost $7 million to develop, is unlikely to wow consumers with its looks or capabilities but may be a sign of what’s to come.

“The cost of putting together a robot that would be fully interactive is going to be prohibitive for a long time to come,” said Larry Fisher, research director at NextGen, an arm of ABI Research.

Fisher said it will be 10 to 15 years before anything more than single-tasking, robots that are “very basic” in terms of human interaction goes on sale.

But simplicity won’t impede growth in the personal robot market, which is expected to top $19 billion globally by 2017, according to a new NextGen report.

ROBOT COMPANIONS

“They won’t accept isolation,” said University of Toronto professor Mark Chignell of the Baby Boomer generation. Chignell studies how humans interact with technology. CareBot’s video-chatting function may help to overcome social isolation, a common problem among seniors, Chignell said.

If the CareBot makes its debut next year, it will be the first robot of its kind in a market driven by Boomers. According to 2006 Census Bureau data there were 78 million Boomers – aged 42 to 60 – that comprised 26 percent of the U.S. population.

An ocean away, another type of robot for the elderly is already on the Japanese market. Yoshiyuki Sankai, University of Tsukuba professor and CEO of robotics firm Cyberdyne developed the muscle-strengthening Hybrid Assistive Limb with $30 million from the Japanese government.

Attach HAL to legs and it understands weak nerve signals from the brain, making otherwise unmovable muscles function in the elderly and disabled. Sankai said he’s witnessed wheelchair-bound seniors walk freely after sessions with HAL.

The robot’s wireless capability connects patients to hospitals or care centers, allowing for rehabilitation at home. HAL is in 37 institutions across Japan – home to a robot-embracing population and the world’s highest proportion of elderly.

By December 2011, institutions in the U.S. could be renting HAL but this is contingent upon the success of trials and Food and Drug Administration approval.

Photo credit: GeckoSystems’ CareBot monitors a 94-year-old woman in Rockdale County, Georgia during in-home trials on December 17, 2009. Photo courtesy of GeckoSystems.

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