Posted in: Accessibility, Cognitive Computing, IBM Research-Austin

Cognitive machines assist independent living as we age

We’ve all had that so-called “senior moment.” Leaving your wallet at a restaurant. Forgetting where you put your house key. Or maybe it’s physical, like no longer being able to take the stairs up to your office at work. As we age, mental and physical challenges do creep up. And we need assistance to stay healthy, mobile, and independent. It’s why the Research team collaborated with Rice University to build an IBM Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant (IBM MERA) in our just-announced Aging in Place environment in the IBM Austin THINKLab.

We’re hard at work training IBM MERA (mee-rah) in our lab, as well as installing a sensor platform in a mock living room, kitchen, hospital room, and retail space. IBM MERA can do everything from “see” someone who has fallen (and help them if they can’t get up); and answer health-related questions, such as “what are symptoms of a stroke?”, to even scan and read heart rate, heart rate variability, and breathing rate. This cognitive technology of speech-to-text, text-to-speech, natural language processing, and Watson Dialogue Q&A, plus Rice’s CameraVitals visual recognition technology (IBM MERA’s eyes), are funneled and analyzed through IBM MERA’s body, currently a SoftBank Pepper robot, via our cloud.

The sensor network built into the lab is connected to that same toolkit of technology. With sensors in the floor, walls, ceiling, and other objects, like wearables, this cognitive agent “collective” can learn patterns of how and when the elderly wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, exercise, or take medication – and offer verbal reminders to take a medication if they forget (or maybe change the light color for those who are hearing impaired). Some of this IBM Accessibility technology is already out in the real world, like the homes of some over-65 residents of Bolzano, Italy, where we’re testing solutions with local government to help their citizens live independently, longer.

Sole Coopertiva, a client key to our aging initiative, is using this immersive technology to create smart home environments for their senior customers. In the video below, they describes how working with IBM is helping expand their services, such as safety and general higher quality of living for the senior citizen population they support.

The collaboration with Rice was a natural extension of a relationship we’ve had with the university for years. A long-time partner in Systems research, Rice’s growth in data sciences perfectly aligns with our cognitive computing strategy. Their researchers in sensors, image recognition, and behavioral science will join us in the lab to help develop and test aging scenarios we’ve hardly even begun imagining.

How do people want to interact with a computer when they’re sick? What’s the most-effective way to connect this data to third parties, such as emergency medical services? Where do you store a robot in someone’s home?

Those questions and many others are what we want to answer with Rice.

Our pilot will focus on in-home care support. We understand that not every person wants a robot in their home – or would necessarily need one. So, we want to find and develop the best way to help seniors stay in their homes for as long as possible. And, as the lab and the number of partners expand, we’ll explore cognitive environments in hospitals, and assisted living facilities.

Institutions and businesses interested in learning more about this technology, and visiting our Aging in Place environment can contact our IBM Access team.

More about aging in place


  • Tedi Wells says:

    Thank you researchers for taking the technology we create in IBM and applying it to the growing community of seniors! Keep up the good work – I know I will need the help one day in the future.

  • Eduardo Villalobos Monge says:

    I just have a word Awesome!

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    Kevin Nowka, Director, IBM Research-Austin

    Kevin Nowka

    Director, IBM Research-Austin