|A researcher of the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) poses with nurse robot MyBom in this photo provided by the institution, Monday. / Courtesy of KIST|
By Baek Byung-yeul
Research institutes and companies are rushing to develop care robots for a growing number of senior citizens suffering from dementia to ease the burden on family members who take care of them, according to industry officials Tuesday.
The state-run Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) said Monday its robot research team developed a nurse robot that can assist patients who are in the early stages of dementia. KIST researchers said the robot, MyBom, is the industry's first artificial intelligence (AI) technology-based dementia care robot.
The researchers said it started to develop the nurse robot as 59 percent of dementia patients are diagnosed with "mild" dementia. Even though it is possible to slow down the progression of the disease with proper care, many patients and their family members experience difficulties as the country lacks caregivers and support. They expect the robot to independently take care of mild dementia patients for at least two hours at a time.
"With the country becoming an aging nation, the government has been operating a state program to support dementia patients. The development of nurse robots, utilizing our AI technology, can help the patients and their family members who also experience stress and physical illness," Park Sung-kee, principal researcher and head of the Convergence Research Center for Diagnosis, Treatment and Care System of Dementia at KIST, told The Korea Times.
Korea's population is aging rapidly and about 800,000 elderly people are living with dementia. The Ministry of Health and Welfare forecasts the number of dementia patients to grow to 2.71 million by 2050 and the disease has become an increasingly serious social issue because it harms not only the patients themselves but also family members who have to take care of them.
As the disease is incurable and untreatable, there has been increasing focus on risk reduction such as early diagnosis and proper care. The principal researcher said the MyBom robot could become a viable solution for both patients and their families.
"While nurse robots developed in Japan or European countries have put a focus on educational features to improve cognition of dementia patients and help them fight off memory loss, MyBom can provide assistance in their daily lives," he said.
Park added MyBom has advanced technology compared to other healthcare robots as it "uses artificial robot brain intelligence (ARBI) technology so that the device can carry out various intelligent tasks."
For instance, the robots can recognize when their patients fall out of bed and make video calls to their caregivers. The robots are also able to have patient-oriented conversations as the AI technology enables them to understand and learn the personality of the patients. In addition, they can sound an alarm if they detect that a patient is leaving the house; remind patients when it's time to take their medicine; and offer interactive programs to improve cognitive abilities of their users.
To commercialize the robot product, the research team set up a startup. After going through a testing period of about a year, the MyBom will be able to be released in the market in the second half of 2020. Park said the price of the robot has not been decided yet.
Besides the state-run institution, private firms are also speeding up to develop care robots for elderly people to capitalize on the growing dementia care product market. The National Institute of Dementia estimated the average expense for taking care of one person with dementia cost 20.95 million won ($17,605) in 2018 and Koreans are expected to spend 106.5 trillion won for dementia care by 2050.
Samsung Electronics announced its Samsung Bot Care robot at the January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The firm said the AI-powered robot can provide assistance to elderly people and help them maintain their health as it regularly checks users' blood pressure, heart rate, breathing and sleeping patterns.
Local robot startup Wonderful Platform also rolled out a care robot Dasomi in February. The 1.5-kilogram-weight robot offers a voice command feature and allows caregivers to monitor the users.