Robots and avatars ‘are the future of assisted living’


Robotics, internet video-calls and even virtual reality “avatars” are likely to play an increasing role in supporting disabled and older people to live independently, according to a senior government adviser.

Professor Brian Collins, chief scientific adviser to both the Department for Transport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, described a series of advances in so-called “smart” technology.

He was speaking at the Smart Living conference, organised by the charity PhoneAbility, which promotes access to information and communication technology for disabled and older people.

Professor Collins said the next generation of hand-held navigation aids would allow people to pinpoint their location to about 10 cm, making it easier for blind people to navigate obstacles.

A wheelchair-user’s hand-held electronic device will soon be able to tell a bus to lower its ramp – without needing to ask the driver – while Japanese scientists have developed a robot that can use chopsticks, to help people with arthritis.

Professor Collins said sensors attached to the body will soon be able to alter the immediate environment according to a person’s health needs, although he said there was a “really interesting debate going on in Whitehall” about the potential loss of privacy.

He also said there was “huge potential” for the internet to deliver “information and conversation” and provide people living alone with “a sense of community”.

He even suggested that “avatars” – virtual reality images of people – could soon be providing “social well-being support” in a person’s home. He said: “I think that is a bit scary but it is something we do need to examine.”

But he warned that “smart can turn to dumb very easily if you do not design very well-designed systems and well-designed support for those systems”, and said the technology must be “very cheap” so as to make it widely available.

Peter Ball, strategic research director for BRE, which carries out research, testing and consultancy on the built environment, told the conference: “We have got to get these products into the mainstream because that will bring down the cost. It’s got to be affordable.”

He also pointed to examples of future use of smart technology, such as wallpaper that could be set to influence a person’s mood, and motion sensors that monitor the movements of someone with a long-term health condition.

Alex Cowan, a disabled delegate to the conference, said she was both “excited and scared” by some of the technologies discussed.

Cowan, a disability equality and inclusive design consultant, said a disabled person must be able to say “no” to a smart device, while the technology must be “impact assessed” for any barriers it might create for disabled people.

She said: “It is really important to say, ‘yes, this is fantastic technology, but what are the barriers, who might be the people who cannot use it and how can we include them?’”

Any alternative versions must be “on the same level” and not inferior to the original, she added.

The conference came days after the government-funded Technology Strategy Board announced a £10 million funding pot for research that would encourage investment in assisted living services and technology.

16 June 2010

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