"I would enjoy playing dominoes or chess with it, definitely," he later said. Brown's initial reaction was typical of people's responses to the raft of new technologies designed to help old and infirm people lead independent lives.
"There is a lot more we can do before resorting to intrusive technologies," says Andrea Lane of UK charity Help the Aged. "Nothing can replace a visit from a human and support from the community." But Eric Dishman, a health technology expert with Intel in Hillsboro, Oregon, is not surprised Andrew was eventually won over when the technology's benefits became apparent.
People are far less concerned about technology intruding on their lives if the alternative is boredom or a loss of independence, he says.
The message from the technologists is that gadgets will play an increasing role in helping old people to cope. Because people in the developed world are living longer, the slice of the population potentially requiring specialised healthcare in later life is growing rapidly: the UN estimates that by 2050 the proportion of the world's population over 60 will double.
"Today's healthcare systems simply cannot scale up to meet the needs of this coming age wave," says Dishman. "The only choice is to focus on technology that lets people help themselves." Robots like the companion offered to Brown are just one of those technologies.
In Japan, which has a rapidly greying population, robotic teddy bears have been cheering up residents in a high-tech nursing home in Korien, near Osaka, since 2000.
The robobears greet their owner by name, relay voicemail messages from relatives and remind them when to take pills. A recent launch is Sanyo's robotic bath, effectively a washing machine for frail people to sit in- with automatic wash, rinse and dry cycles. And still more ambitious Japanese research is focusing on "exoskeletons" that help people walk. In the US, General Electric will soon be selling networks of motion sensors to keep an eye on forgetful people, allowing them to live safely at home for longer.
In its system, wireless sensors feed a central computer programmed to distinguish between normal and "abnormal" behaviour around their home. For example, failure to visit the kitchen within a certain time interval may mean a meal has been missed. If so, the computer emails a carer so they can remind the person to grab a bite to eat.
In New York, a firm called Xanboo is using networks of cameras and sensors to help people monitor relatives with dementia. It lets them remotely switch off an overflowing bath or adjust the central heating system.
However, both these American ideas have been adapted from household security systems; they haven't been designed from the ground up to help elderly people. Russ Bodoff of the Center for Aging Services Technologies in Washington DC thinks such systems need to be smarter- just because someone enters the kitchen does not guarantee that they eat while they are there.
So Don Patterson and colleagues at Intel's lab in Seattle, Washington, are writing software that guesses the task someone is performing from the sequence in which they encounter a series of objects. They attach tags that emit a unique radio ID signal to things like kettles, cutlery drawers, teabag boxes, fridges and toothbrushes.
The subject wears a bracelet that doubles as a tag reader which then "talks" to the tags on an object when it is a few centimetres away- and assumes it has been touched. The bracelet would then send a radio message to a PC saying, for instance, what time the teabags were touched. If the kettle was touched afterwards, software on the PC might reliably infer- and inform the carer- that tea had been brewed, for example.
Martha Pollack at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor wants to take Intel's idea a step further by giving the subject verbal advice so they can help themselves. So she is designing a PDA-based system, called Autominder, that will infer - from Intel's tags, or cameras that recognise everyday objects- when a forgetful person has half-completed a task. It will then advise on how to finish it.
Pollack believes that ultra-smart devices like Autominder could be commercialised within eight years. And doing so will get easier: as people increasingly put in wireless home entertainment networks to pipe video and data around their houses, these home healthcare networks are going to become easier and easier to set up, predicts Dishman.
Written by CELESTE BIEVER
New Scientist issue: 15 MAY 2004
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