In the future elderly people will be able to rely on artificially intelligent ‘virtual companions’ to help them to stay living comfortably and safely in their own homes.
The service could revolutionise the way elderly people are cared for in the future, giving back independence and autonomy to millions and saving the NHS money.
That is the vision of a team of computer scientists, social work experts and service design specialists who have been awarded £500K from the Technology Strategy Board to develop the concept of the Responsive InTeractive Advocate (RITA). The RITA project is one of six to be born out of a competition, called the Long Term Care Revolution, which connects public sector challenges with innovative ideas from industry.
The project team from the Universities of Portsmouth and Kent are collaborating with two private companies to build the system which could be operational in some form as early as 2020.
Individuals will have their own humanised computer avatar capable of intelligent communication, which will monitor their health and well-being and provide a friendly link between the individual and family, friends, professions and services. The avatar will have access to a comprehensive database of personal information about the individual, from health records to personal preferences and even character traits, which will help inform its communication and decisions.
The avatar might appear as a figure on a television screen or a tablet computer or could even be a holographic display. It could monitor heart rate and blood pressure, remind people to take medication and would know if they had fallen over or were in pain and alert the doctor or the emergency services. It would be able to analyse their speech, movement and facial expression to detect their mood and respond accordingly. The system would not require computer literacy and would be no more challenging to operate than switching on a television.
The development could transform how an individual’s personal, social, emotional and intellectual needs are captured and understood, enabling and prolonging their ability to live independently for longer in their own homes
Dr Wendy Powell, RITA’s Virtual Reality expert from the School of Creative Technologies, said that although the concept sounds futuristic, it isn’t science fiction.
“Much of the technology exists today and will become more sophisticated in the next few years. Pulling together information about a person from different sources to build a complete picture of their life is something we’re more familiar with as a marketing tool. But RITA is all about using our information to create a better quality of life for us as we age.”
The database would include an active medical history and personal information such as habits and personal preferences. It could even include family photographs and videos – a social history of a person’s life. Dr Powell said it’s about capturing the very essence of an individual.
“The avatar has access to all of this personal history, just like a real lifelong companion would, and uses the information to act as champion and advocate. Today our elderly population are so often alone due to divorce, death and family diaspora. What we are creating is an effective support system to fill a massive void in the current care system.”
The project team know that before the technology can be used in this way that there are legal barriers and ethical considerations to be examined but Dr Powell, who is Chair of the ethics committee in her faculty, stressed that personal data would be secure and accessible only by the individual it belonged to.
“We understand that people will have concerns about data privacy and ownership of personal information and controls around this will be a fundamental consideration that we will build into the technology to make it watertight,” Dr Powell said.
Iain Gray, Chief Executive of the Technology Strategy Board said: “This is an expanding market and we need to radically rethink our approach to long-term care provision, providing options that will enable people to live with more dignity and autonomy.
“We focus innovation activity on areas where we think it can make the biggest difference. Late life care is often regarded as an economic liability but it can actually be an engine for economic growth.”
Dr Powell said: “The challenge was to find a cost-effective means of supporting an aging population to live freely and independently and we believe our vision could become a reality within the next 10 years. By the time today’s forty-something’s need care we fully expect the technology to be so sophisticated that the concept is an option for anyone who needs it.”