Independence. For people with disabilities and the aging population, it’s more than a word—it’s a catalyst for fulfillment and dignity.
Home is where that independence and quality of life can be realized. The aging population wants to safely live in their own homes as long as possible. People with disabilities want a home designed for their specific needs. Ultimately, a more accessible home will help people feel connected and valued, and reduce loneliness.
How technology enables aging in place
“My in-laws just turned 87 and 91, and my family is determining how to best care for them,” said Scott Gerard, Senior Technical Staff Member at IBM Research. “It’s a challenge, though some of my family can be at their house within five minutes. Others wants to help, but live far away.”
The current worldwide aging population is one of the biggest demographic shifts ever seen, and has the potential to reshape many economic sectors, how we live, and technology.
Is the world ready? In a word: no.
“There are just not enough caregivers to go around,” said Gerard, who works on Cognitive Eldercare. “Who is going to take care of us all?” There are also financial considerations, since higher levels of care cost more and most people haven’t factored that in their budgets.
“Everyone needs to be involved—government, industry, academia—to find coordinated solutions.”
The answer? Smarter homes: integrating IoT, AI, and analytics that will help monitor our aging population’s general health and daily activities.
“We can add sensors to homes or living units to detect motion and see if a person is moving slower than normal or if they’ve fallen,” said Gerard. Every elder is different, but major deviations from normal behavior could raise alarms and alert family and caregivers.
Sensors can track and analyze a person’s gait, fall risk, and daily activities, including hygiene and sleeping patterns.
AI and sensors can learn particular leg and arm movements, and even detect if someone is limping. Sensors can notice a gradual decline, something that might elude people who see their parents every day.
Sensors can monitor atmospheric readings of carbon dioxide to help determine what time someone wakes up and goes to bed, where a person is and how long they’ve been there, or how many meals they eat and when.
With this much data captured, privacy concerns are real.
“We need to be ethical and tap into greater security,” Gerard said. For many, it’s a choice between staying at home with monitoring or moving to a facility where they’ll also be monitored. “We have to find a balance with gathering data, which is why we haven’t gone with audio or video.”
How accessible homes change lives
For people with disabilities, voice recognition and IoT technology can provide greater independence and dignity in their homes.
Imagine how a virtual assistant could help a person who is quadriplegic: Simple voice commands, across a constellation of connected devices, can turn on lights and unlock doors, adjust the temperature, turn on the oven, make phone calls, text, open window blinds, and order groceries.
“The ways people interact with machines will most certainly change,” said Dr. Ruoyi Zhou, Director of Accessibility at IBM. “We will soon move away from traditional desktop and mobile touch devices to solutions that are more intelligent and based on natural human interactions—such as voice.”
That does create challenges for people who are deaf or mute, she acknowledges. But here, too, new human computer interfaces will play a larger role. Lighting connected to smart phones or virtual assistants could flash purple, for example, to alert people that someone is at the door. Machine vision could understand hand motions and body language. A person could use sign language to turn on the oven or gesture to change the channel.
And all the data gathered could inform the next generation of accessible design.
“As connected products become ubiquitous, more data around actual product usage is created,” said Bruce Anderson, IBM GM for the Electronics Industry. By understanding how customers use their products, companies can quickly update features or adjust future models.
Accessibility: a catalyst for innovation
The key to more accessible products, according to Drew LaHart, Program Director at IBM Research, is that accessibility must no longer just mean compliance. It must be a crucial aspect of design—which will lead to innovation and business transformation.
“It’s important for all organizations to create an enterprise-wide strategy for embedding accessibility in order to better manage compliance, improve user experience on any device or application, and create an inclusive work environment,” said LaHart.
Accessible technology can also help build a barrier-free society.
“Accessible design really is just good design,” said Erich Manser, IBM Research. “It ultimately improves usability for everyone.”
Download IBM's latest report, AI in the public sector: Understanding the barries and benefits