Industry 4.0 in the service of senior citizens

M. Rokonuzzaman | Published: September 27, 2017 19:46:57 | Updated: October 24, 2017 14:31:39

An elderly woman and a man at a nursing home in Tokyo: Japan to create more user-friendly elderly care robots

Elderly care has been a growing issue across the world. Due to the lack of interest of having children, promotional activities in favour of taking few children, and even regulation like one-child policy have been major causes behind the growing density of elderly population. In one hand, life expectancy is growing, and on the other, birth rate is diminishing, resulting in falling number of youths per elderly. It's not only Japan, even China is facing growing elderly issue.  Once China adopted one-child policy to control population growth. But China's current demographic issue has shifted from newborn babies to growing elderly population. In China, about 128 million, or one in every 10 people, are elderly; the number of people over 60 years of age is likely to grow to 400 million by the year 2050. Similarly, in Japan, 40 per cent of its population will be over 65 in 2050, according to analysis by US census. The situation of USA and Western Europe is not far better than this. In the USA, as the average age of death has moved from 68 in 1950 to nearly 79 now, the ranks of the elderly have grown. According to a study, more than 10 million people over the age of 50 are caring their aging parents. In certain situations, the issue has already become unmanageable. For, example, in Japan, according to national Police Agency reports, more than 12,000 dementia patients went missing in 2015, and hundreds of them were later found dead.

Nursing homes are not solutions, as cost is becoming unaffordable to a large population. Moreover, elderly citizens need freedom and a bit of care from their loved ones. How to address this situation has been a critical issue. Basically, we have two major options. The first one is about freeing working hours of youths or working age population to enable them to look after their ageing parents. The second option is about to provide assistive devices to ageing population for reducing their dependence on human assistance. Technology could be an answer to use both the two options. For the 2nd option, residences should be retrofitted with the capability of sensing the movement and behaviour of elderly people and to adapt accordingly. Moreover, assistive devices should have some degree of intelligence and autonomy so that they could be usable by elderly people having limited cognitive as well as motor skills. 

Industry 4.0 stands for physical systems, whether wheelchairs or factory machines, with some degree of cognitive capabilities. These devices are commonly known as cyber physical systems. With sensing capability they can gather data about the environment. Once visual sensors were quite inferior to human eyes. But, in the recent past, micro digital cameras have showed up with high image density, costing just couple of dollars. Moreover, miniaturization of many other sensors based on acoustics, laser, touch, and chemical properties have made it possible to develop sensing capability, which is not only comparable to human sensing systems, even they could be better. The emergence of low-cost high-performing computing devices, primarily due to the growth of smartphones, it has become possible to develop software to process rich data produced by sensors to perceive the situation in real-time. Accordingly, reasoning capability could be developed based on the situation to reason about rational actions to be taken to get meaningful jobs done. With the growth of such cognitive capability, physical systems, commonly known as Robots, are acquiring human like competency to understand as well as adapt with the situation and perform jobs. As a result, conventional wheelchairs could be upgraded at the age of Industry 4.0, so that they can follow the oral directions of elderly occupants to reach to desired location, by navigating through busy outdoor environment. Such capability reduces the dependence of elderly people and free working hours of wished-for caregivers. Similarly, many other assistive devices could be developed by taking the advantage from underlying technology of Industry 4.0 to offer greater freedom to aging population, and freeing the engagement of caregivers.

The advancement of Industry 4.0 leading to driverless automobiles could be another blessing for elderly care. Instead of waiting for someone to show up to drive, ageing population requiring driving assistance will have the freedom to board the driverless cars and reach the destination by themselves. Does it necessarily mean that technology could be the full solution to ageing population? Not, really. As they keep ageing, they keep asking for more humanely care. The Globe and Mail has quoted a professor saying, "Elder care is the new child care".  It has been found that robots, even with smile face, are not welcome as a full substitute to human care. There have been efforts to develop robotic assistive devices with human-like empathy. But, besides being fitted with the latest voice recognition, loaded with more than a dozen sensors, including two touch sensors in its hands, three touch sensors on its head, and six laser sensors and three bumper sensors in its base-the robotic device Pepper is failing to do the job with human-like compassion.

At the age of Industry 4.0, human-free factory to produce manufactured outputs without human touch is not far away. Autonomous driving could be a reality within the next couple of decades - even in highly unstructured cities of South Asia. But developing robotic caregivers as full substitute to human ones could be far from a reality. The underlying technology of Industry 4.0, however, offers a bit more acceptable alternative. Remote human caregivers could be fitted with necessary sensors and software (commonly known as virtual and augmented reality) to make them virtually present within those robotic assistive devices, so that those devices could provide care with a bit of more acceptable empathy. Such possibilities open the opportunity of remotely connecting human caregivers over the Internet to provide care-giving assistance.  As a result, loved ones sitting in office or residing in different locations could make them virtually present next to those elderly care seekers. This possibility also opens the opportunity of connecting millions of youths of developing nations to augment onsite robotic assistive devices to provide needed care blended with human-like empathy.

M. Rokonuzzaman, Ph.D, Academic, Researcher and Activist: Technology, Innovation and Policy, is Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, North South University.


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