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Pittsburgh technology center may create robots to fulfill assisted-living needs

| Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, 12:05 a.m.
Dan Siewiorek, 66, of Squirrel Hill shows off HERB, the Home Exploring Robot Butler, at Carnegie Mellon University on Monday, Dec. 31, 2012.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Dan Siewiorek, 66, of Squirrel Hill shows off HERB, the Home Exploring Robot Butler, at Carnegie Mellon University on Monday, Dec. 31, 2012. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review

High-tech gadgets, many being developed in Pittsburgh, are making it a little easier to grow old.

Pill dispensers wired to your doctor or pharmacist, tiny in-home motion sensors, and shoes with tracking devices are helping seniors stay in their homes and offering a bit of relief to loved ones.

More are on the way, experts say.

“Seniors will have robots within five to six years that will help them around the house,” said futurist Frank Sowa, CEO of Xavier Group LTD, a Pittsburgh consulting firm. “Our technology is shifting so quickly. ... Our society is about to change dramatically.”

And Pittsburgh is leading the way in a lot of the work.

“The ideas being developed here are so far ahead of everywhere else,” Sowa said.

The Quality of Life Technology Center, jointly run by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, is a National Science Foundation engineering research center focused on development of intelligent systems that enable older adults and people with disabilities to live more independently.

The center is developing prototypes of personal assistive robots; cognitive and behavioral coaching systems; and human awareness and driver-assistance technologies.

“We're taking a look at doing and capability and trying to bridge the gap with technology,” said Dan Siewiorek, the center's director.

HERB, or the Home Exploring Robot Butler, could one day help seniors prepare meals, he said. Smart phone apps will help older people live better, as well as those of all ages.

“Phones are becoming more sensitive ... some already have gyroscopes,” Siewiorek said.

Two University of Pittsburgh researchers, Steven Handler and Zachary Marcum, are conducting a year-long research study to compare a medication delivery unit from an Altoona company to normal methods for adult patients.

“It's a problem for a lot of folks — there are medical errors and discrepancies,” said Marcum, 28, a pharmacist from Shadyside. “Older adults are at higher risk, but it's a problem across all ages.”

Handler and Marcus are using a medication delivery unit with wireless, two-way web-based communications software that allows a physician, pharmacist or other licensed practitioner to remotely manage prescriptions stored and released by the patient-operated unit.

When it's time for patients to take their medications, the unit emits an audible and visual alert. After a patient activates the device, it takes the medications from their packaging and releases them into the delivery tray.

Marcum said these types of devices might not be for everyone, but as their costs come down their use likely will become more prevalent.

Medication reminders already come in small sizes — they can be worn as a watch or identification bracelet. Patients hear an alarm and see a text message when it's time to take their medicine.

Some devices are still restricted to hospitals or the wealthiest consumers, but many are becoming more accessible to average folks.

Home blood-pressure monitors have been around for years. Newer versions can connect with an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or

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