Like so many things in life, the future of eldercare seemingly lies in robotics. On December 8, IBM and Rice University announced that they have collaborated on a prototype robot designed to help the elderly and assist their caregivers.

Named IBM MERA (Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant), the project is a Watson-powered robot that can help read a patient's vital signs, answer questions about their health, and recognize and assist if there is a fall. The prototype was created by IBM alongside Rice University students and faculty from the departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Psychology. The robot currently resides inside IBM's "Aging in Place" research facility in Austin, Texas.

In addition to running on IBM systems—such as the Cloud and Watson technologies—MERA also implements CameraVitals, a system that can read vital signs by recording a patient's face. This technology was developed by Rice's Ashutosh Sabharwal and Ashok Veeraraghavan.

The combination of IBM Watson's speech functions and CameraVitals can potentially help get information to caregivers quickly and at all times of the day, especially in an emergency situation. Watson's speech and text capabilities also come into play if a patient has any health questions for the MERA, such as “What are the symptoms of anxiety?” or “What is my heart rate?,” according to the university. The idea is that the MERA will implement these systems to help the elderly live independently, while still being provided with the basic care they need.

“Now is the time to invest in, care for, protect, and empower our aging population so they can live more independent lives,” Arvind Krishna, IBM Research's senior vice president, said. “Our new research on ‘embodied cognition,’ which combines 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.”

Both IBM and the university stress that the number of people aged 65 and up in the United States will continue to grow in the coming decades, with estimates pointing at 92 million by 2060, making advancements in eldercare vital as the overall population ages.

[h/t Healthcare IT News