How AI Keeps Tabs on the Elderly

Filling the worker gap raises ethical issues

Key Takeaways

  • AI could help monitor the elderly to make up for a shortfall of workers in the senior care industry. 
  • South Korea is trying out an AI system that calls seniors and asks about their symptoms. 
  • Some experts are concerned that AI-guided robot companions could replace human contact for the elderly.
A senior adult shaking hands with a small robot.

wonry / Getty Images

Artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly being used to monitor the elderly, but some experts say the practice raises ethical issues. 

CareCall is a new artificial intelligence (AI) system that checks in on seniors by giving them a call. It's part of a burgeoning industry of AI tools and robots that could help assist people who are aging. However, there are concerns that AI-guided robot companions could end up replacing human contact for the elderly.

"Robots must be sensitive and empathetic and compassionate, accompanying care acts with genuine concern and conveying feeling," said Ron Baecker, an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, where he founded the Technologies for Aging Gracefully Lab, in an email interview. "We are nowhere close to achieving this, so governments and senior care organizations need to be aware of the dangers of entrusting the care of our seniors to robot' caregivers.'"

AI That Calls and Cares

The Clova CareCall system is an AI voice assistant used to see how Korean seniors are feeling after getting Covid-19 vaccinations. The free service began last year in Jeonju City, South Korea. 

A grandparent and grandchild interacting with a smartphone while the child holds a tiny robot.

Fran Polito / Getty Images

For three days after getting their shots, people got phone calls asking whether they were experiencing symptoms. The AI voice assistant can understand responses and automatically involve a human respondent. Before the system was implemented, inquiries had to be made by government officials. Initially, the AI system made two calls a day, inquiring about people's temperatures and symptoms.

"Today's technology advancements afford us the opportunity to deliver an entirely new standard of care," Terrence Poon, the founder of Twin Health, which provides remote care solutions for chronic metabolic disease, said via email. "AI and digital twin technology provide care teams with access to real-time health data and trend analysis, so they can provide patients with comprehensive care from anywhere. What's more, these insights also provide chronic disease patients with an invaluable self-management tool between doctor visits and can be used for remote monitoring."

Other AI systems are already helping fill in care gaps for the elderly. For example, Sensi.ai offers an AI-based virtual care management platform for home care agencies. The Israeli startup Sensi.AI uses an auditory system that monitors a person's daily routine, environment, and well-being. 

The system listens and learns the client's environment. Then, after two weeks, it creates a baseline of their daily routine so that it can then detect and measure any unusual or irregular events and alert those in charge.

"With the biggest staffing shortage in history, AI can diminish the workload for caregivers, so they can focus on where they are needed most for personal care."

"Off shift hours, Sensi serves as a much-needed virtual support platform, providing the elderly with confidence and independence in a safe, monitored environment without compromising their privacy," Romi Gubes, CEO of Sensi.ai, said via email. "With Sensi, seniors are now, more than ever before, able to age on their own terms, in the comfort of their own homes, with the dignity and respect that they deserve."

There's also Vayyar Care which uses a camera-free solution that provides round-the-clock protection for seniors at home. The contactless, wall-mounted sensors alert responders when a senior has fallen and can't push a button or pull a cord to summon help. Vayyar will be available as part of Alexa Together, a new subscription service from Amazon designed to facilitate safe aging in place. If Vayyar Care detects a fall, it will contact the Alexa Together Urgent Response emergency helpline. Alexa will also send a notification to the designated caregiver.

"With the biggest staffing shortage in history, AI can diminish the workload for caregivers, so they can focus on where they are needed most for personal care," Kris Singleton, the president of Enseo, a technology services provider for senior living, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Technology and AI also empower residents to find independence with a purpose to control their own environment."

Robot Companions

A serious problem for seniors is loneliness, but AI now supports the construction of lifelike robots that could help, Baecker said. One automaton on the market is Paro, the Robot Seal, a cute and cuddly animal-like interactive ‘intelligent’ robotic seal intended to be a companion to seniors.

“Interaction with animals is beneficial for seniors, yet many care facilities do not accept animals,” Baecker said. “It was designed as a seal, rather than, for example, a cat because few people know how a seal behaves. Hence most people would not notice ‘imperfections’ in Paro’s reactions.”

Correction 02/15/2022: Added to the description of Twin Health in paragraph 6 to clarify the company's services.

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