AI to Help Senior Citizens? Alibaba and Tencent Enter the AI Medical Field, Self-Driving Taxi’s in the United States, and more
With our aging society, the utilization of AI (artificial intelligence) is expected to increase in countries and regions all over the world.
In addition to Japan, the Chinese government’s “AI development plan” in conjunction with three major Chinese IT companies, Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, has entered the AI medical field. In Singapore, large-scale reforms to the medical system utilizing AI are being conducted as well.
Even in the West, various initiatives are beginning to take root, such as home support tools that combine Amazon Alexa and cloud services along with the popularization of self-driving taxis in regions with high numbers of elderly citizens.
2050- 2 billion people over the age of 60 with 400 million over the age of 80
According to a 2017 announcement by Age International, a charitable organization that supports the elderly, in the last 50 years, the average life expectancy has increased by nearly 20 years. The number of people in the world over 60 years of age is 962 million, of which 60% of them currently live in developing countries. However, this number is expected to rise by more than 80% by 2050. In other words, the number of elderly people over 60 will increase by 2 billion and the population of people over 80 will increase by 400 million – twice the figure announced in 2000.
With the intention to respond to the needs of our rapidly aging society, the utilization of AI is gaining attention. In addition to using robots to provide physical support in nursing care, the development of AI to perform simple intellectual tasks in order to compensate for the lack of available labor is also strongly required.
Not just nursing care but tools to support home life are also important
As Japan is known to have a “super aging society”, the Ministry of the Economy has announced the “implementation of medical and nursing care robots with improved recognition and control functions provided by AI” as part of its industry changes.
According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, it is estimated that in 2025 the number of people aged 65 or over in Japan will reach 36.57 million. That is over 30% of the total population that will require urgent countermeasures. Because of the current situation, various enterprises are currently developing AI-based products to support the elderly.
The first thing comes to mind when you think about robotic care for the elderly is nursing care. Home support tools are also important for promoting independence in seniors. For example, the communication robot “Tapia” developed by MJI can personalize its functions to allow interactive communication that eliminates the coldness that can come with machines. It is a device that will provide the warm feeling of communicating with family and friends.
Tapia is fully loaded with support functions to reassure both users and their family members. It not only supports basic daily life activities such as schedule management, reading the news and weather forecast, facial recognition, name recognition and remembers a user’s birthday, but also provides remote monitoring and notifications for family members who live at a distance.
As for a representative example of cooperation between major foreign companies, Japan Post announced a joint development project with IBM and Apple in 2015. IBM and Apple made a strategic alliance enterprise in 2014 in attempt to help Japan Post in their goal of the development and distribution of network services for the elderly via the iPad (from Tech Crunch).
The Chinese government invested about 30 billion SGD into its “AI development plan”, and aims to become the world standard within the next 20 years
Creating counter measures for an aging society has also become an important issue in China. The population of people above the age of 60 is 185 million with 38% of elderly people living with their children. A large number of elderly people are forced to spend their lives in nursing care facilities, but AI technology is essential for reducing the burden on medical and nursing care facilities and to improve the quality of nursing care.
In July 2017, the Chinese government announced its “next generation AI development plan”. They plan to invest 150 billion Yuan (about 30 billion SGD) by the year 2020 “to raise their level of AI technology to become the world standard”. Like other countries, China is aiming to utilize AI in various fields of which elderly socialization measures are also included. By 2025 the budget will be increased to 400 billion Yuan and again to 1 trillion Yuan by 2030. In certain cities such as Suzhou City and Shenzhen City, municipalities provide support to local companies (from Forbes magazine).
Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu enter the AI medical field
Three major Chinese enterprises, Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, are also entering the medical and nursing care business by utilizing AI technology.
Alibaba’s medical department, Ali-health, is affiliated with domestic hospitals to develop AI for diagnostic support solutions to identify inflammatory cells from CAT scan images. Baidu has developed a Chabot-type medical communication tool while Tencent has invested in Shenzhen City’s AI medical data startup iCarbonX as well as healthcare information startup companies in India such as Practo (from the South China Morning Post).
Shanghai SIASUN Robot and Automation (Shinchi Machinery Automation Co., Ltd.) has announced home support robots dedicated to elderly care. The Robotics Institute of Shandong University in Jinan City has developed a security system that combines voice and visual information with facial recognition technology. It can direct visitors to a house based on a photograph and if an issue arises, it can make an urgent report to an emergency contact (from China Daily).
In Singapore, major medical care system innovations are made with AI
Even though it is still 30 years behind Japan in terms of having a problem with a rapid decline in birthrate and an aging population, Singapore has already entered the era of an aging society. In 2009, the percentage of people aged of 65 or older was 9.4% and it has since increased to 14.4% in 2017.
By contrast, the percentage of people aged of 20 to 64 decreased to 4.7% (down 0.3 points from the previous year), and it is expected to further decline to 2.4% by 2030 (from the Straits Times).
The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has begun to reform the health care system with the idea of utilizing technology including AI as a countermeasure to fix the “knowledge and labor intensive” healthcare field with something more efficient and cost effective.
The new healthcare system that Singapore is aiming for will “maintain optimal treatment and care as people maintain the standards of the system without leaving their homes.” It is expected that an AI-based “performance analysis” will greatly contribute to the implementation of the new healthcare system.
AI will also play a big role in ‘disease identification strategies’. For example, building a predictive model from data on diabetes makes it easier to realize an early intervention program for prevention and treatment.
At Tan Tock Seng Hospital, AI is used to manage their beds in order to solve a shortage of employees; they have succeeded in reducing the minimum number of persons required from 4 to 2. The Changi general hospital, which has been gradually working on the robotic automation of its operations since 2015, has been considering the development of “robotic nurses” which will question patients before their medical consults (from Asia Medical Academy).
Accenture uses Alexa and other “AI home support platforms”
Similar actions are progressing in Europe and the United States.
In August 2017, Accenture conducted a three-month pilot project to support the lives of elderly people using AI technology in London, England. Using the AI “Accenture platform” based on the Amazon cloud service “AWS”, it was intended to study the lifestyles and behaviors of people over the age of 70 and use the collected data to provide physical and mental support.
With the platform, families and caregivers of the elderly were able to check up on their daily duties through information on activities and whether or not they took their medicine. Furthermore, when an abnormal behavior pattern was detected, the system provided notifications. Elderly people could also send requests to families and caregivers through Amazon Echo and receive good and useful information on local events as well as on finding companions.
Amazon’s speech recognition service Alexa was used for the experiment in which they utilized it to add the skills necessary for the development of the “Alexa Skills Kit” using AWS Lambda (a computing service that can execute code without server management) and Amazon S3 (an online web storage service).
The 60 elderly people aged 70 or older who participated in the experiment gave very positive feedback, such as “it felt as though there was a friend in the next room” and that they “can no longer consider life without the device”.
The United States is actively working on home support for the elderly, such as developing a “doctor search service” under the voice recognition function for Alexa.
Promoting self-driving taxis in elderly communities
In California, a self-driving taxi extension project for elderly people is underway. The self-driving taxi start-up Voyage promotes self-driving taxi services to seniors in the elderly communities of San Jose in the Bay Area.
After completing the examination period, if all the issues in regards to safety are passed, they will consider expanding the service not just to citizens of San Jose but also to the general public.
Despite its short establishment of less than a year, Voyage has already succeeded in financing more than $20 million towards the project, which shows the high expectations society has for a means of transport that utilizes self-driving cars.
However, the fact that a considerable difference between the expectations of these markets and the elderly populations interests in them exists cannot be ignored. For example, in a survey carried out by Kelly Blue Book, an automobile related information research company in 2016, only 9% of respondents aged 51 to 64 replied “I would like to use an automated vehicle (AV) (from BBC). The removal of feelings of insecurity surrounding AV usage within the elderly community is one of the future tasks of the AI market.
The difficulties of creating an environment in which elderly people can easily and safely coexist with AI
The same can be said about things like AI home support tools and nurse robots. If elderly people are unable to use these systems comfortably, it will be difficult to distribute them despite all the time and money that has been spent on their development.
Although the number of elderly people that can use the internet and smart phones is on the rise,, it will still be a greater challenge with devices with more complex operations such as at home AI support tools. Considerations such as how to minimize the number of functions that are required to be operated from the user’s end will be essential so that it will not result in a situation in which people say “I have one at home but I never use it.”
Ray Lin Michele of the Texas based A & M Health Science Center is concerned about privacy protection. For example, having “voice recognition type personal assistants” such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home comes with the possibility that “everything is being overheard”. This includes conversations and sounds that are constantly exposed when the devices are powered on. Both Amazon and Google have denied such allegations but there are certainly concerns surrounding the issue as they are unable to insure that this sort of thing will never occur.
Michele also points out the issue of how insurance companies will react towards these “applications for medical purposes”. Up until now, medical insurance has only been covered for diagnosis and treatment by a human physician, but what will happen if an AI finds a cancer cell or makes a diagnosis on its own in the future? There are numerous issues that require clarification.
Dr. Deborah Vollmer, director of the Texas Life Sciences Foundation has commented on the issue saying that when providing products and services of this sort, they must be “safe, easy, and affordable” in order to support our aging society and that computer scientists and experts from a wide range of fields such as gerontology, public health, and law should also be involved in the reformation.