Toyota’s $14 million bet on Intuition Robotics’ social companion robot (JP/IL/US)

Social companion robots for older adults and the disabled are hot again. Tel Aviv and now San Francisco-based Intuition Robotics is enjoying a $14 million second Series A investment from Toyota Research Institute (TRI) for the ElliQ ‘active aging companion’. The ElliQ desktop robot is tethered to a proprietary tablet to connect an older adult with the outside world via video chat, using machine learning about the person to recommend activities, and assist with appointments, medication reminders, music, wellness, and environmental monitoring. ElliQ is still in pre-release. The $14 million is being put to immediate use in initial testing with users in the Bay Area, and Intuition is ramping up with a team there. 

TRI is based in Los Altos CA and is wholly owned by Toyota North America. Earlier seed and Series A investments totaling $8 million were made by iRobot, Terra Venture Partners, Bloomberg Beta and ManivMobility. This is the second older adult-targeted robotics news in as many weeks, with the more fully-featured and ‘humanoid’ KOMPAÏ in France going the crowdfunding route (as Intuition did early on) for €250,000 to fund the next generation [TTA 5 July]. After viewing the video below, it seems to this Editor that a lot of the interactive voice command technology has been overtaken by assistants already in market like Siri, Amazon Alexa, and Google Home. TechCrunch, Home Health Care News

 

Robotic exoskeletons are…alive!

It seems like ages–in reality, only two years or so [TTA 19 Dec 15]–that this Editor was writing hopefully about advances in exoskeletons such as ReWalk and Wyss, EKSO plus DARPA research in assisting the mobility of paraplegics and others who need assistance in major movement. And then the news went rather dark, though ReWalk is now in its sixth iteration.

So it is heartening to be able to report that an established healthcare robotics company, Toronto’s Bionik Laboratories, is investing in a joint venture with Boston-based Wistron Corporation, an industrial design and manufacturing company, to further develop the Bionik ARKE lower body exoskeleton. Bionik’s emphasis has been on rehabilitative hospital-to-home upper body robotics to assist patients with regaining mobility. The ARKE appears to be both rehabilitative and assistive for patients in the home. Once developed in the JV, Wistron would be the sole manufacturer. 

According to Crunchbase, Bionik raised $13.1 million in a July 2015 private placement specifically to develop the ARKE (MassDevice). This past May, they raised about $2 million from Hong Kong’s Ginger Capital in a separate JV to sell their robotics into the Chinese market. Bionik partnered with IBM starting last year to develop machine learning to analyze the data generated by the ARKE (FierceBiotech).

The target market for the Bionik/Wistron JV is not in this context a surprise. It is the booming older adult Asian market, where the aging/elderly population is projected to hit 983 million by 2050. Many especially in China and India live in rural areas and aren’t covered by any pension or old-age support (ADB Research). It is not clear to this Editor how expensive lower-body exoskeletons will be supported financially either privately or by government.  Bionik release, FierceBiotech

Older adults anticipate their relationships with ‘helper’ robots: study

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Penn-State.png” thumb_width=”150″ /]How older adults (65+) respond to the idea of ‘helper robots’ which may be a part of their future lives span a wide range. The key seems to be that they are ‘most advanced, yet acceptable’ (designer Raymond Loewy’s MAYA dictum) when they perform passive ‘physical, informational and interactional’ tasks–‘helpers and butlers’ in the researchers’ terms. Robots which kick it up a notch and are more autonomous, making its own decisions without direction, are far less acceptable and perceived as ‘robot masters’. “Seniors do not mind having robots as companions, but they worry about the potential loss of control over social order to robots.” That is a leap that goes forward, in the lead researcher’s terms, to how the media has portrayed robots as shaping older adults’ perceptions. A team from Penn State University’s Media Effects Research Laboratory surveyed 45 older adults — between ages 65 and 95 years old — at a senior citizens’ center in Pennsylvania. Published in the Interaction Studies journal. Penn State News Hat tip to our former Northern Ireland Contributing Editor Toni Bunting. On the other end of the age spectrum, an earlier study by the same lead researcher noted that older people were quite concerned about the effects of robots on young people and the desire for parental controls, lest the robots might encourage laziness and dependency. Penn State News (2014)

ReWalk powered exoskeleton now covered by the VA (US)

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/rewalk.jpg” thumb_width=”200″ /]The advancement of robotic assistance in movement and walking took a sizable step forward (so to speak) with the Veterans Administration now covering the cost of and transition to the ReWalk powered exoskeleton on a national basis. It will be supplied to qualifying veterans with spinal cord injuries, but that qualification is a substantial hurdle in itself. According to the AP article, height and weight requirements are specific, and the paraplegic veteran has to be capable of wearing the supportive belt around the waist to keep the suit in place and carrying a backpack which holds the computer and rechargeable battery. Crutches still must be used for stability and the FDA as part of its clearance requires an assistant be nearby. It also cannot be worn for a full day, but even minimal use was proven to be beneficial; in VA pilot studies, the paraplegics who wore the ReWalk as little as four hours a week for three to five months experienced better bowel and bladder function, reduced back pain, improved sleep and less fatigue.

ReWalk has identified 45 paralyzed veterans who qualify, (more…)