Centrica Hive, a sister company of British Gas, wants to create a new system that enables the remote monitoring of the elderly by their families using sensors on home devices such as cupboards, kettles and their front door. As well as monitoring their activity, the system would incorporate a virtual assistant capable of talking to the user and helping to prevent loneliness.
“There’s lots of research and lots of potential solutions out there already for how loneliness and isolation can be tackled through robotics,” Managing director Claire Miles told the Sunday Telegraph. “One of our big volunteering programmes at work is that you can take time off to call an older person and be that weekly person that they have a chat with. You can absolutely envisage that could be done through robotics.” she said.
Miles envisions an ‘Alexa-type’ solution, which can respond to voice commands from a user, rather than a physical humanoid robot. When asked if the sensor system could lead to families to visit their elderly relatives less often, she responded: “We are very alert to the problems with this particular cohort of customers around isolation and loneliness, and we would never want to exacerbate that.”
“In fact, tackling that issue is one of the things on our roadmap for this proposition, is how can this actually help in that space, not exaggerate or exacerbate it.”
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The smart home system, Hive Link, has a variety of features to monitor and even learn the user’s habits. For example, the system allows family members to see when the person last used their kitchen appliances, and check if they closed their front door. Once it has established the user’s patterns it can send out alerts to relatives and friends if the person has deviated from their routine.
With the cost of elderly care rising, smart home solutions such as Hive Link have grown in popularity with both families and local councils. At present, the technology is only used by private individuals but it is clear this sort of sensor system could be installed by councils on behalf of older residents. Furthermore, the data gathered by the system could be used for medical research purposes by the NHS, by tracking the deterioration of someone’s ability to perform tasks over time.
Centrica Hive’s research revealed that older people were not receptive to having cameras installed in their homes, similarly they were opposed to wearable technology. Last year, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research suggested that automated carers could reduce the burden on the NHS by keeping older people independent in their own homes.
However, experts and older people’s charities have raised concerns over such robotic replacements due to issues such as privacy (especially in regards to devices that incorporate cameras) and the detrimental impact of removing the human element from care.