Skip to Content

Molinaroli College of Engineering and Computing

Professor Studies How to Make Robots Useful To Older Adults

A unique computer science professor at the University of South Carolina is researching and developing technologies that will allow older adults to live fuller and more independent lives. Jenay Beer received her undergraduate degree in psychology before deciding she wanted to study the interactions between robots and humans, specifically people over 65 years old. She earned her doctoral degree in an emerging field - Engineering Psychology. Now, she is an assistant professor with a joint position in the USC College of Engineering and Computing and the College of Social Work.

"Engineers focus on how to design and develop a product, but is it also important to focus on how it will effect the lives of the people who use the product, " said Beer. "But because of my psychology background, I understand that a product isn't useful if a customer can't figure out how to operate it or if it doesn't help them improve their lives in some way."

Beer has teamed up with College of Social Work researcher Sue Levkoff - both are faculty members of the USC's SmartHome initiative. The center connects researchers in social work, medicine and engineering with the goal of enabling older adults to stay in their own homes longer through the use of new technologies and community services.

"There is a misnomer that older adults aren't good with technologies. I have found the opposite to be true. They are capable of understanding and using robots, computers and other technologies if these tools can truly enhance their lives in some way. If they see a tangible benefit, they tend to be more willing to adopt the technology," said Beer.

Recently, she's been working with "smart presence", which she described as "Skype on wheels." The devices typically stand about 5 feet tall: a computer screen mounted on a pole that connects to a motorized base.

Imagine the device stored in a kitchen nook. An older adult can create a user profile for their children or other caregivers that will allow them to remotely check in regularly. The caregivers can turn on the device from their home computer, which then projects the caregiver's face as they roams the home, find the elder, and initiate a conversation. Is there food in the refrigerator? Are dishes washed? Is dad steady on his feet? The caregiver can see for themselves.

"Technology can really be a bridge between people to promote a healthy lifestyle," Beer said.

Beer also hopes to introduce smart presence in several assisted living centers around Columbia soon.

"We want to see how older adults interact with the devices," said Beer. "Maybe there is also a way for medical professionals to use smart presence to get a true look at the patient while making certain health decisions – even at any hour from several states away. We are not looking to replace medical professionals or family interaction, but these devices could serve as another tool to help older adults communicate and maybe even receive better care."

4 June 14

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.