Artificial intelligence (AI) look set to make an increasing impact on the services provided by nursing homes in China. Wang Lingmei is sitting in front of a rehab training machine in an elderly care centre in China and playing an electronic game. Wang is one of 30 patients who live in the Lujiazui Elderly Community Centre, which is located in one of the most popular areas of Shanghai’s Pudong district.
Using a machine that looks a bit like an electronic piano with a TV screen attached instead of a music score, the 84-year-old is reaching out to touch virtual fruits by moving a handle as part of a daily exercise routine to recover mobility after fracturing her right arm and leg in a fall a year ago.
“The game is interesting and makes me feel happy,” she says in a Shanghai dialect. “We have a therapist to monitor our condition while using it, so I am not afraid of this technology and machine. After all, it’s a new thing for me.”
The population of China is aging and the number of over 60s reached 250 million in 2018 out of a total population of about 1.4 billion, meaning the country needs to address how a growing proportion of elderly people can be supported by a creaking welfare system. Sounds somewhat similar to the situation we have in the UK
In 2019, about two working people paying pension contributions support one non-working retiree, but by 2050, the dependency ratio is expected to drop to one contributor supporting one retiree, according to a recent report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Using artificial intelligence
That is why a growing number of scientists and tech companies in China are working on artificial intelligence (AI) applications to make the country’s health care services more efficient.
The Lujiazui Elderly Community Centre is also the first institute in the district to use smart mattresses with sensors to help monitor the health of patients, and the data can be shared with medical staff and family members. Patients can even be located by GPS in case they are ‘lost.’
Before having the electronic rehabilitation machine, which is made by Shanghai-based technology start-up Fourier Intelligence, the centre had to hire a therapist to visit every day to help patients with rehab exercise.
Although the therapist is still needed, the machine frees up the human from repetitive, time-consuming work.
“The therapist would direct the patient’s hand to an object and help them repeat the move around 500 times in 20 minutes,” said Gu Jie, CEO of Fourier Intelligence. “It would completely occupy the therapist’s time, and for the patients it wasn’t exactly fun.”
The new machines can also monitor three patients at a time, improving efficiency, said Shi Junjie, director of the Lujiazui Elderly Community Centre.
In first-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, many elderly people are already receptive to smart elderly care.
Difficulties in recruiting staff
China, it is also becoming harder to find qualified care-givers even though the industry is relatively well-paid. Regulations are patchy and many nannies suffer from poor job-satisfaction, even with a 15,000 yuan (US$2,000) average monthly income in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, according to Xinhua.
Development of service robots
Chen Xiaoping, a professor at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), has been developing service robots which can provide services such as medicine reminders, for over 10 years.
“We started working on service robots in 2008 but I think it’s impossible to achieve general AI robots,” said Chen in an interview during the Chongqing Smart China Expo last month.
“We work on integrated AI by splitting the work of a nanny into different set tasks as there are huge differences between family situations.”
Chen’s team showcased the medicine reminder service at the 2019 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence last month in Macau. The technology is not as simple as setting an alarm.
“Sometimes elderly people just stand up and walk around (after receiving the reminder), so the robot needs to remind them again. Sometimes they take the medicine, so it needs to avoid repeating the reminder,” Chen said.
“We haven’t fully achieved success. But the positive results so far encourage us to keep working on it,” he said.
The use of artificial intelligence (AI) to support people in Chinese Nursing Homes seems to be gathering pace driven partly by the difficulties in recruiting staff and the growing cost of care. It would seem that those responsible for the provision of care in China are confronted by the same problems faced by providers in the UK. It is interesting to note that scientists involved in the development of artificial intelligence do not see it as a panacea. At this point in time it seems impossible to achieve general AI robots, the focus is more on integrated AI, where tasks are shared between robots and staff.
Albert Cook Albert Cook BA, MA & Fellow Charted Quality Institute Managing Director Bettal Quality Consultancy