The CareBot prototype runs five to 12 software-based GeckoSavant artificial intelligence (AI) engines on netbook-size PCs, Spencer says. These engines are controlled by GeckoSuper, a piece of software that manages CareBot's AI functions like a conductor in an orchestra. "We have multiple computers running tens of thousands of lines of software running hundreds of sensors and the locomotion system," Spencer says.
GeckoSavant relies on "sensor fusion," a combination of multiple sensor systems such as vision and hearing, to maintain awareness of its surroundings. The robot's GeckoTrak software senses body heat, identifies colors, and uses sonar and infrared range finders to monitor a person's movements in the home. GeckoScheduler software can be used to remind the person in its care to walk the dog or turn on the TV to catch a particular program. (See a video of a CareBot in action here.)
Like Robosoft, Gecko also designed its robot to connect with third-party medical monitoring systems that measure blood pressure and sugar, pulse rate, and other medical information, which it sends to physicians via the Internet. Setting up a family member with a CareBot will not be cheap: Spencer expects his company's robots to cost between $10,000 and $20,000. As for Kompaï, Dupourque estimates R&D versions cost about $12,000 to $19,000 (depending on the configuration), and targets around $6,000 at the mass-production stage.
Other robot-makers expect to join the fray eventually. iRobot, the Bedford, Mass., company best known for its Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners, says it is in the "early exploratory phase" of considering an elder care product. iRobot CEO Colin Angle demonstrated his company's bomb disposal robot at TED MED last fall. He explained to Scientific American how this basic design (wheels or tracks over legs—a preference shared by iRobot, Robosoft and Gecko) might be applied to elder care: "Legs are very complex when you could use wheels or tracks and get the same benefit with a more practical design," Angle says.
One of the many hurdles for these futuristic caretakers is acceptance. Dupourque thinks elderly people using PCs or mobile phones will similarly embrace robots in their homes. University of Louisville's Robinson takes a longer view and expects it will take another 20 or years or so, when baby boomers are in their 80s, for the robots to be widely accepted in seniors' homes.
"This technology is going to be very important as the baby boomers age, as we have this explosion of elder care that is going to be needed in the future," she says. "I think it will allow elders to remain living independently much longer."