With the baby-boomer generation reaching retirement age, a wave of elderly citizens is about to hit the United States. As people get older, they become more likely to develop serious health conditions. The CDC reports that 1.5 million people currently reside in skilled nursing homes. The spike in elderly citizens will likely result in major shortages of caregivers and assisted care facilities. Worldwide, there were 357 million people aged 65 and older in 1990; that number is expected to more than double by 2025, to 761 million.
How will we care for all these people, and what sorts of lives will they lead?
We know that real quality of life is directly tied to independence. We like to do what we can for ourselves. Intelligent systems can help to maintain or enhance one’s ability to live independently longer. However, it is important that such systems strike a careful balance. Quality of life technologies (QoLTs) are intelligent systems that take into account the abilities, needs, and intentions of the user. These systems can adapt to an individual’s unique circumstances without forcing the individual to accept more assistance or automation than they desire.
In essence, QoLTs must enhance, rather than replace, natural human capabilities. For this reason, QoLT systems must often be aware of the people around them and the contexts and environments in which they are used. They must be capable of responding quickly to changing conditions. Sensor technologies are therefore integral to the QoLT approach. Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) provide a foundation for the continual awareness, recognition, and learning that is required by efficient and effective QoLT design.
“Providing intelligent sensing and actuation, which can be combined with electronics processing ‘muscle’ like ASICs, microprocessors, and even DSPs, MEMS enable a high degree of interactivity with the environment,” says Karen Lightman, managing director of the MEMS Industry Group. “MEMS pack this intelligence into a small footprint, making it the ideal companion for resource-constrained applications.”
There are several projects in development at the Quality of Life Technology Center, an engineering research center run by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh and sponsored by the NSF, that provide examples of how MEMS technology can improve a user’s quality of life. These projects enhance quality of life in relation to the user’s mind, body, and community.
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About the author
Daniel P. Siewiorek is a Buhl University professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science at Carnegie Mellon University’s Quality of Life Technology Center.
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