Lessons from Space May Help Care for Those Living Through Social Isolation on Earth

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European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano tested CIMON’s capabilities and interactions in early 2020.

Since the Crew Dragon spacecraft arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) on May 31, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have been busy—according to their Twitter posts, even working over the weekend to repair the ISS treadmill. They likely don’t have much time to think about being lonely and cut off from life on Earth approximately 220 miles (350 km) below.

Astronauts’ reactions to isolation have been studied in depth and space agencies train and prep them for long stretches in orbit. But most people impacted by social isolation are ill-prepared to cope with loss of human interaction over an extended period of time. As health-care professionals and researchers, we know that such feeling can have detrimental side effects including depression and, sometimes, aggression and violence. What’s more, anxiety and stress are known to unbalance a person’s immune system, leaving them more vulnerable to viral infections.

Such changes are particularly dangerous for the most vulnerable members of society—especially the world’s elderly population, many of whom have had to cope with a loss of much-needed visits from family, friends and caregivers during the lockdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19. With the elderly population growing faster than any other age group, it’s time to apply lessons and technology from one isolated population to help another in need.

Those lessons could include looking at how to harness AI-powered assistants such as CIMON—the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion—which has been developed by the German space agency DLR, Airbus and IBM.

CIMON is a ball-shaped, free-flying robot that communicates in natural language to assist astronauts with simple tasks such as answering questions, displaying information, taking videos and photos. CIMON-2—the latest version of the space robot, which astronauts on the ISS have been experimenting with over the last six months, knows who it is talking to and uses a new tone analyzer to evaluates astronauts’ speech for emotion so it can respond with an appropriate level of empathy. In the next stage of CIMON’s development, researchers will look into its effectiveness for monitoring and assessing astronauts’ health.

Academics and technology companies behind the CIMON program are now exploring its potential role on Earth. Footage from the ISS of astronauts interacting with such AI-powered robots shows how, in the absence of regular social contact, the elderly could likewise benefit from interactive technologies that stimulate both mental and physical activity over prolonged periods of time, beyond what a phone or video call can provide. Talking to a non-judgmental robot about what’s on your mind may have positive therapeutic qualities.

Already, companies like Tombot have developed social robots to help provide emotional support for older people. Elsewhere, companies like Cera Care and Karantis360 are developing solutions that use sensor and AI technologies to help carers and families keep a watchful eye on vulnerable individuals living in their own homes and spot anomalies in eating, sleeping, mobility and bathroom routines. Various types of monitoring technologies have been used in space to keep astronauts safe for decades.

There are a number of considerations that must be made for this technology to be a success in a care environment. First and foremost, carers and those being cared for must understand and give their consent to the technology and how it is used. While the most personalized solutions are the most effective, people must be able to trust that any personal data collected is secure, and that their privacy is being protected. The technology also has to overcome fears about AI making decisions for the people it serves. There must be a clear hierarchy—for a person to accept any form of assistant, it must appear and behave in a simple and subordinate manner.

A robot’s form factor also plays an important role in how a person responds to it. There are years of work ahead to explore the best design for an elder-care robot. Some of that will come down to function. A robotic puppy might be good for easing anxiety and listening to problems, but would you heed its instructions if it tells you it’s time to take your medication or change your behavior?

We believe these issues can be worked out. Virtual assistants, robots and other assisted living technologies could, within the next decade, become an accepted and widespread approach to caring for the elderly and other vulnerable members of society. As we start to think about life after the COVID-19 pandemic, futuristic sounding approaches for caring for our loved ones should not be just blue-sky thinking.

Heather Fraser is a pharmacist and the Global Lead for Healthcare and Life Sciences with the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV).

Dr. Judith-Irina Buchheim

Dr. Judith-Irina Buchheim is a researcher in the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich’s Department of Anesthesiology and principal investigator on the CIMON-2 team.

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