A Week in IoT: How secure are your devices, and your elderly?

Well, this week’s themes are BIG. Fundamental flaws in chip security are affecting all kinds of IoT devices, and big players like Intel and Apple are in the frame as they scramble to patch the problem. ‘Does the IoT have the device management tools needed to fix this?’ asks Jeremy Cowan. One analyst doubts it.

Meanwhile, planners are asking if smart cities will be fit for purpose. Will they be smart enough to provide help where it’s needed most – for the elderly? (In planners’ timefames, that’s you and me, by the way.) It’s not a coincidence that we’re seeing a growing focus on edge computing for smart cities – in some IoT sectors that may be the only way to manage all this data.

As you will have heard unless you just got in from Mars, Google‘s Project Zero security research team has released details of a serious security vulnerability. Indeed, some are calling it the most serious hardware bug of the modern era.

Samuel Hale: Access to normally off-limits data

Samuel Hale, analyst and IoT development expert at the US-based analyst firm MachNation tells IoT Now: “This vulnerability impacts literally all large cloud-services companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and others that offer multi-tenant services.”

So, he believes it’s no wonder that Intel’s stock tumbled following this announcement. Fixing this security problem is going to decrease enterprise application performance by approximately 10-15% worldwide. “This vulnerability is so serious,” says Hale, “that any application running on a system may be able to access normally off-limits data, such as passwords, security keys, or other sensitive information.”

He insists the implications for Internet of Things devices will be huge. “The majority of all IoT devices worldwide will need a software update very soon. Without great IoT device management, this is going to be extremely difficult to accomplish.”

Gavin Millard: Long-standing blunder in chip design.

Gavin Millard, technical director at Tenable adds: “The latest vulnerabilities blessed with catchy names and logos are deserving of the hype that will surely build. Spectre and Meltdown are both incredibly concerning from a privacy perspective, affecting the average home user and enterprises alike.

The long-standing blunder in chip design could enable an attacker to access confidential pieces of information being processed, for example grabbing a password as it’s typed, installing malware that could slurp up anything a user is working on, or browser data to enable it to hoover up credit card details and logins.” (Other vacuum cleaners are available. Ed.)

“For home users, MacOS has already been updated to address the flaw with Apple’s recent 10.13.2 patch release. For Windows, there were also fixes made available last night. Almost everybody is affected by these bugs, in ways researchers are only just discovering. It is of the utmost importance that updates are applied in a timely manner,” says Millard. “With a possible decrease in processing speed caused by addressing the flaws, organisations that rely on cloud platforms could be facing a significant financial impact from the increase in the number of workloads required […]

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IBM and Nokia develop Aging in Place solution to help elderly in their homes

‘Getting old is not for sissies’, said Bette Davis, famously. That’s certainly true – and for many it’s a subject we prefer to ignore, especially if it’s happening to us. But it’s also true that aging is better than the alternative, and increasingly, technology is helping us see the way to a better quality of life in our old age.

Offering personalized wellness solutions with IoT

One such assistive initiative comes from IBM and Nokia, and it’s called ‘Aging in Place’. The solution is designed to help monitor the health and wellness of elderly people within their own homes, enabling them to stay put for as long as possible and deferring the need for assistive living care.

In December 2016, IBM opened an ‘Aging in Place’ environment in its Austin Research Lab, to try and understand the types of interactions elderly people have in their homes. Using insights from this research, Nokia and IBM have developed the Aging in Place solution, which was announced at this year’s Genius of Things event in Boston. The solution combines motion sensors in the home, a Nokia IoT-enabled wellness watch, Nokia Gateway, IBM Watson IoT Platform and Nokia Wellness applications. Together, these platforms and devices can provide personalized wellness patterns tailored to each individual, and provide early warning notifications if something seems wrong.

People using the system can elect to automatically notify select friends and family as well as care givers at certain points in the day – either to assure them that all is well, or make sure they are on the scene as quickly as possible should the occasion call for it.

Pilot and deployment

While thoroughly tested in laboratory conditions, the solution has yet to hit the market. To ensure that it’s fit for purpose, Aging in Place will be deployed as part of a pilot scheme involving 40 participants, for the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga (EPB) – an internet services provider in Tennessee. Following a successful pilot, the solution will be promoted to EPB’s existing customer base of around 140,000 subscribers.

It’s early days yet, but interest in Aging in Place is high. It could help prevent avoidable accidents and help elderly people keep in touch with loved ones, while giving them a comprehensive care solution that still leaves room for independence and privacy.

Learn more

To learn more about IBM’s work on aging and care of the elderly, visit our website.

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Aiding the elderly: The IBM Watson Cube

Students from Imperial College, London have teamed up with the IBM Hursley Innovation Centre to create a device to assist the elderly at home. It goes by the name ‘The IBM Watson Cube’ and looks a bit like an antique wooden mini TV set, small enough to sit in the palm of your hand. Appearances can be deceiving, however, as this is one seriously smart contraption, complete with voice activation, conversational know-how and real-world knowledge.

Virtual companion, multi-tasker and conversationalist

Built by third-year Electronic Engineering students from Imperial College, London, the voice-operated cube’s purpose is to act the virtual companion to elderly people who are still able to live at home, but need a little support now and then.

On the practical side, the cube can remind its owner of meal and medication times, call or message in case of emergency and give news and weather updates from the BBC. There’s also a ‘Memories’ function to aid those with dementia.

Beyond the merely practical, the cube offers companionship – at least to a rudimentary degree – and is able to hold conversations with its users to determine their interests. It can even recommend podcasts and music that its owner or owners might enjoy listening to, based on what is has learned from chatting to them.

IBM Watson Cube Team

The IBM Watson Cube Team

The personal touch

So far, the cube sounds like a considerate and well-read friend, though I suspect its conversational skills are somewhat limited. It’s a comfortable sort of company to have, and rather adept at the personal touch, thanks to Watson’s visual recognition tools, which make for a more engaging and, dare I say it, ‘real’ experience.

It’s not off-puttingly swanky either – the appearance deliberately steers clear of smooth lines, shiny surfaces and anything that looks like it belongs on the Star Ship Enterprise. Instead, it’s a reassuringly boxy design, easy to handle and a far cry from intimidating-looking cutting edge technology.

It’s still early days for this companionable device, with real-world testing still to come, but the initial results are positive. Time will tell how it will fare with its new users – watch this space for more on this story.

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Can ElliQ the robot combat social isolation in the elderly?


When you think of robots designed to help people, you might think of the role of robotics in caring and customer service roles or companion orientated service robots like Pepper, Nao or even Hasbro’s companion pets. Then more recently there’s the emergence of robots as sexual or romantic partners. One start-up from Israel, Intuition Robotics is throwing an interesting offering into the ring, a new AI companion called ElliQ, aimed at keeping older adults active and engaged, and reducing the epidemic of loneliness among older people. I spoke with Dor Skuler, CEO and co-founder to find out more.

Skuler explained the rationale behind the robot:

“We live longer but also healthier lives. 90 percent of older adults want to live in their own home and the period of time we’re still cognitive, still independent and we don’t have to live in assisted care is growing. Conversely, younger people live further, and further away from their parents with hectic lifestyles that rely heavily on technology. About 30 to 60 percent of older adults identify themselves say that they are lonely which usually means that the real number is even higher.”

In terms of function, ElliQ is perhaps closer to Alexa than Pepper as Intuition Robotics is leveraging Cognitive Computing, Human Robotics Interaction, and Cloud Robotics in developing the robot’s ability to proactively recommend digital and physical activities to keep owners active and engaged with family, friends, and life.

The robot creates a conduit for older adults to connect with their family. As Skulker notes:

“What we can do with robots is really simplify the means for older adults to connect with their family. If you look at a typical family, we’re all on Facebook Messenger. We share some of the information and pictures and content but aging parents are not part of that discussion. Teenagers don’t want to call grandparents. But what they love to do is share a selfie, to find the link to a TED talk. They maybe send an emoji or text message and communicate the way they’re used to communicate but just on messenger. So the first thing that we created is in essence, a virtual chat bot for a messenger that allows the family to very easily connect with Grandma.

But it’s extremely intuitive. They don’t have to work the text, they don’t have to unlock their phone. They don’t need to try and look at small letters, they don’t need to click anything with their fingers. We just tell them ‘hey here’s a new picture from your granddaughter do you want to see?’  If she says yes we can show it to her and if she wants to comment then we record a message and it’s sent. So all of a sudden she’s part of the conversation. She gets the opportunity to get the content instead of having that once a week awkward discussion, she’s just part of the family.”

See also: Are robots replacing humans in health care?

It’s a bit like putting older relatives back in the family home where they are content to sit and observe and engage with the family members as they go about their day. ElliQ also takes this a step further with a proactiveness that differentiates the robot from Alexa and Siri that wait for the user to prompt them:

“Older adults by and large become reactive and not proactive. they tend to stick to a routine. They tend not to discover and add new things and new capabilities to their day. If you suggest things to them that are relevant to them there’s a very high probability that they’ll say yes. (Which by the way means you have to be extremely responsible and only suggest appropriate things and never take advantage). So basically ElliQ has extremely smart sensors and the ability to understand what’s going on at home and suggest activities. For example, ‘ Hey, it’s a beautiful day why don’t you go for a walk?’. It might be a schedule reminder to take your meds, a reminder to keep an appointment and it might be in the digital world: ‘Hey you want to listen to some Frank Sinatra? Or here’s a great TED talk you might want to listen to?’”

A unique aesthetic

ElliQ’s innovative design was created in collaboration with Yves Béhar, founder and principal designer of the award-winning industrial design firm fuseproject. It is comprised of two separate elements: ElliQ, the social director, exhibits human characteristics through gestures animated by movement, speech, sounds and light. A LED lighting display, along with a wide range of motions are utilized to convey subtle emotional expressions and give the device a friendly and warm personification. The second element consists of a separate screen that functions in a cradle display or in the user’s hand to view content in the location of their choice.

It’s not every day that you speak to a CEO of a start-up whose first hire was a gerontologist.  Other involved with the project include former VP of Advanced Technologies at Apple, Prof. Don Norman, along with Intel SVP Amir Faintuch, and leading academic experts in the fields of Cognitive Computing, HRI, Machine Intelligence, and Robotics.

Skuler explained that some of their initial assumptions of a robot for the aged were incorrect:

“We thought that we each create an environment in which the older adult needs to take care of ElliQ and we found out that that’s not really the case. The best thing you can do is help people feel like they’re not completely alone at home.  We were worried that older adults wouldn’t want to talk to a machine. Especially when I sat in a room full of older adults and showed them how I use Siri. and I got very strange looks. But we found they are absolutely willing to talk to a machine and over time they treat them more and more as entities rather than devices.” 

ElliQ is currently being showcased at the Design Museum in London and in February Intuition Robotics will be rolling out a trial phase in the homes of older adults in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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