Smart Homes Will Enhance Your Old Age

The Technology Strategy Board, an agency designed to stimulate growth in the UK, has taken eight UK entrepreneurs in the robotics and autonomous systems field on an intensive mission to California. There, they are being given privileged access to several world-leading technology and manufacturing companies in Silicon Valley to enable them to develop their know-how in this important field. A significant area for consideration is the enhancement of the experience of later life.


In 10 years’ time almost a fifth of the US and Europe population will be over 65. We need to focus now on the issues of independent living for an ageing population. Developing autonomous devices that enhance the experience of later life will be crucial, with products such as robotic furniture, smart bathrooms and digital companions for use in homes, care homes and hospitals.
The ethos is to promote autonomy and enhanced quality of life for people in their homes, and do this through customisable intelligent appliances with autonomous robotic functionality. We can extend how existing and new homes work to include additional capacities for human-robot social and physical interaction. But importantly we need to develop comfortable smart homes with non-intrusive, non-stigmatising integrated technologies that can assist residents and their relations, friends and carers.
This might start by developing smart extensions to existing building structures and furnishings. For example, smart rooms with provision for safe robot arms with dextrous grippers, and assistive devices for eating and hygiene, or technologies exploiting speech and visual (expression, gesture) capabilities that form a two-way sentient interface.
For the foreseeable future a useful sentient humanoid robot is impractical within most domestic budgets and their performance in no way matches that of, say, an average 13 year-old person, which is the minimum age for responsibility and intellect using the Alan Turing benchmark. People just don’t need a pricey, underperforming humanoid in their homes, but we do believe they will love something unexpected like a smart table that can usefully navigate around the home, comes when called, and positions itself over a bed, in the kitchen or by the TV.
Development of such a device might provide a proof-of-principle platform for a new class of assistive robotic devices that we term Physically-Assistive Mobile Intelligent Appliances (PAMIAs). These will have the capacity to be integrated into our living spaces in a non-intrusive but empowering way. Whilst having the potential to operate as standalone devices, we should also investigate the integration of smart environment technology in close consultation with potential users, and create a real-world smart home setting.
This technology will need to be developed to be inclusive (useful to anyone) but will be particularly important for older people or those with disabilities - encouraging autonomy (personal independence) and supporting a socially-engaged and enjoyable lifestyle. The bathroom is an area that is particularly ripe for redesign to improve its effectiveness and ease of use, enabling users to carry out their daily hygiene regimes easily, comfortably and privately.
This user experience-driven technological approach to designing smart homes will bring together users, scientists, designers, carers and technologists to systematically explore the potential for this approach. Consulting stakeholder groups in the US and Europe will be central to this iterative, human-centred design process.
A key objective is to demonstrate this approach by integrating it into the  home setting, meeting major challenges for autonomous service robotics —assisted eating, dressing and hygiene—and showing the potential for devices to make a substantial and measurable contribution to independent living.
In all probability, many of these PAMIAs will be fully controlled by users but will be linked to the cloud and leased from health industry service providers who will be able to check their performance and conduct maintenance for safety compliance as well as monitoring pertinent health data on residents. This will also ensure that there is a constant feedback loop that will help accelerate device performance and effectiveness.
The significant benefit of smart homes and easy to use devices can both increase dignity and extend the period of comfortable independence for older people, including those suffering cognitive and physical challenges.



Sebastian Conran is creative director of Sebastian Conran Associates, a retail product and development design agency. He previously worked for his father, the renowned businessman Terence Conran.


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Sebastian Conran

Sebastian Conran is creative director of Sebastian Conran Associates, a retail product and development design agency. He previously worked for his father, the renowned businessman Terence Conran.

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