MERA is four feet tall and has big, searching eyes and large ears. MERA’s not a medical professional but can measure your heartbeat just by looking at you.
“Hi!” MERA chirps happily when you offer a greeting. “I am a health agent and I can also be your best buddy at home. Nice to meet you. How are you today?”
Suzann Keohane, a master inventor and researcher at IBM’s Austin labs, replies, “I’m feeling well!”
MERA says, “Good to hear that. I have detected that your heart rate is 71.4 and it is perfectly fine, too. Have a great day!”
MERA, a robot, uses a camera to study a person’s face to get that measurement. Huaijin George Chen, a PHD student at Rice University working on the project, explains, “Every time your heart beats, your heart will pump blood into every portion of your body, including your face. Every time there’s a heart beat, your face turns slightly red, then goes back to normal.
“We can’t see it with our own eyes, but a background algorithm magnifies this color change” having divided the face up into different areas to give a better readout of those color changes, Chen says.
You’ll get no argument that a blood pressure monitor could easily do the same job with a lot less conversation. But MERA is more research project than end product, the result of a collaboration between IBM’s Aging in Place laboratory and Rice University.
Rice’s expertise in sensors and behavioral science is being combined with IBM’s Watson natural-language tech and the company’s increasing obsession (in a good way, we hope!) with big data and machine learning.
Right now, MERA is a mere robot, housed in a four-foot tall white body with friendly features, based on a product called Pepper from SoftBank Robotics. MERA stands for “Multi-purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant.”
“I wanted ‘EDNA,’ but MERA had a better acronym,” Keohane cracks.
Keohane is a funny, energetic presence in the lab. A few moments earlier, when MERA was getting ready to make her greeting, warbled, “Hello Miss MERA? Is it me your’e looking for?”
To talk with Keohane at length is to be led down the dizzying path of possibilities for how tech can, and probably will, help a fast-growing population of seniors. The robot, as cute as it is even at this early stage of functionality, is just one piece of a much-larger puzzle.
Aging in place
Kevin Nowka, director of IBM Research Austin, says everyone has a “Granny story.”
“It’s a story where someone is worried about their mom, or ‘Where’s granny?’ “ he says. Sometimes the story involves small details that lead a family to consider an assisted living facility or to explore more ways to monitor an aging family member.
Keohane says in her research she’s heard them all and they’re not always solveable situations with happy endings. “You hear about someone dying because they fell in their home and there was no way for anyone to know about it. And you think, ‘Is that really still happening?’ “
The stakes are not always so life-and-death, but much of the work that Keohane, her staff and partners from Rice University, are working on involve ways technology can help seniors live longer lives more independently.
That could mean off-the-shelf Wi-Fi-enabled lights that change color when the faucet is left on in the kitchen, detected by cheap, consumer water sensors. It could mean a home environment smart enough to tell that a companion cat hasn’t been fed in a few days, something that falls out of the normal routine.
“If the cat isn’t being fed, that’s a priority for granny, we may need to have someone check in on her or get more data from that environment,” said Nowka.
The challenge for Keohane’s team is figuring out the best ways to collect the vast amounts of data needed to create models of environments and the behavior of seniors, and to begin to develop technologies that can interpret these things and tell when something is out of the norm.
The interfaces, largely, don’t matter. “We’re really device agnostic because what we really want to do is aggregate all that data and start to build out that cognitive technology and build out that machine learning,” she said. “We can take in any data point, not just sensors. Data records, financial records, health records.”
In Austin, IBM built an Aging in Place environment that includes a bedroom, kitchen and living room, all outfitted with sensors that can detect presence, movement and many other changes that happen.
IBM has about 3,000 researchers in 12 global labs. The Austin Aging in Place lab is housed in IBM’s large North Burnett Road campus and is one of several labs IBM has throughout the world to study aging. Keohane cites an AARP study that 90 percent of people over 65 say they want to stay in their homes as long as possible.
“They don’t want to be a burden to their family, to their community, to society, they want to be independent,” she said.
“How can we use the power of our cognitive technology to enable someone to be independent longer?” Keohane asked. “That’s one of our goals.”
If you can help a senior stay in their home two years longer than they otherwise would have, she says, “Even if they do eventually transition to an assisted living provider, the savings is tremendous.”
IBM’s efforts are not unique in the technology world, at least for researchers and companies eyeing future trends.
The percentage of those over 65 is expected to continue growing, a phenomenon already being seen in Japan, where a record 35.6 million people are over that age.
Koehane says that aging is, frankly speaking, “A global epidemic. We’re going to start to see how aging will disrupt the national infrastructure. We’ll have to figure out how to address that.”
One of IBM’s current experiments involves assisted-living communities in Italy served by Sole Cooperativa, an Italian healthcare provider. Rooms enabled with sensors will be able to monitor the health of seniors, create an alert when someone falls or simply create a data model of what is normal behavior in order to prevent a future calamity.
Some of the technology might be so-called “Ambient tech,” sensors and devices that stay out of the way, collecting data or assisting in ways that are largely invisible to a resident. A robot like MERA may be a helper in someone's living space sometime in the future, but it’s much more likely that technology like that might be incorporated into a smart phone, a smart mirror or some other less obvious piece of gear.
Serving seniors is a moving target that will continue to evolve, something Keohane says involves thinking not only of what’s needed today, but what technologies will best serve these age groups in the future.
“My dad is 84. He loves TV and he uses a remote, but he doesn’t have an iPhone. But as people are aging into these groups, their technology abilities will change over time,” she said. “How do you begin to develop a solution that’s personalized? We need technology to meet them where they’re at.”
COVER IMAGE: IBM's "Aging In Place" research lab in Austin, which studies ways to use technologies to help seniors live fuller lives at home, is currently working on an assistance robot called "Pepper." Susann Keohane, IBM Research master inventor, and Huaijin George Chen, PhD student at Rice University studying Computational Imagery and Computer Vision in engineering, work with MERA in the IBM Austin Aging in Place environment lab. Ralph Barrera / AMERICAN-STATESMAN