Sunday, February 7, 2010

Swiss technology tackles greying society

One WEF session heard Switzerland could no longer cling to a retirement age that was set generations ago

Technological advances could meet some of the challenges..
Swiss scientists in Davos outlined the latest medical, robotics, biomechanics and architectural research aimed at improving the lives of the elderly. But delegates also heard that tough political decisions would be necessary.

All demographic projections point to a marked increase in the number of pensioners in the next 50 years, coupled with a significant downturn in birth rates.

In Switzerland, the over-65s age group is tipped to make up a third of the population by 2050 compared to around 17 per cent at present. The phenomenon, which would be mirrored throughout the world, threatens to place an unbearable burden on social security and health systems while impeding economic output.

Some problems could be solved with technological advances aimed specifically at meeting the challenges. A team of professors from the Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) and Lausanne (EPFL) highlighted how such breakthroughs could relieve the burden on the public purse as well as on pensioners.

Science keeps you working
Breakthroughs in the field of biomechanics, for example, have made it possible to estimate the likelihood of bone fractures caused by normal domestic tasks such as lifting shopping bags. Such data could form the basis of preventative medical treatments, saving not only suffering but also more lengthy post-accident repair work.

Designing homes with the elderly in mind would both enhance the independence of occupants and reduce the need for household help. The use of robots and artificial intelligence could also serve similar functions, according to Dario Floreano, director of the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at EPFL.

Floreano’s research includes sensors that monitor fatigue levels to indicate how much physical activity can be safely undertaken. He is also developing robotic exoskeletons that would give walkers or lifters an extra boost and an array of robotic domestic help.