Smart chips safeguard seniors living alone

Yang Jian
The chips collect and analyze power usage, triggering an alert if anything is abnormal, such as a power overload or a lamp on long after midnight.
Yang Jian
Shot by Jiang Xiaowei.

Shanghai native Wu Yuxiu, 86, feels more secure when using electronic appliances alone at home after a smart chip has been installed on her electric meter.

Every morning, the retiree heats up a cup of milk in the microwave, opens the computer to check stock prices, and switches on the air-conditioner in the summer and the heater in the winter to make herself comfortable in her 30-square-meter apartment on Shanyin Road, Hongkou District.

The chip collects and analyzes her power usage, triggering an alert if anything is abnormal, such as a power overload or a lamp on long after midnight. Nearby community workers or family members are alerted on the phone and can visit to sort out the problem.

In the past, the community workers had to call Wu, who suffers from chronic heart disease, through a calling machine several times a day to make sure she was safe, sometimes awakening her in the evening.

"I prefer the smart gadget, which makes me feel safe without disturbance at night," said Wu.

She has been living alone in the old neighborhood in Hongkou's Ouyang Road Subdistrict for over two decades since her husband died in 2000. Her home is several steps away from the Continental Terrace built in 1931, known as the former residence of Lu Xun (1881-1936), the forefather of China's modern literature.

The subdistrict, which has one of the city's densest populations of senior citizens, has become the first in Shanghai to promote such smart chips involving artificial intelligence, 5G and big data technologies.

Smart chips safeguard seniors living alone
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Wu Yuxiu, 86, checks stock prices on her computer at her apartment on Shanyin Road, Hongkou District.

Developed by local tech company Visionet, the smart chip, an "intelligent circuit breaker," can learn the power use habits of users based on data from the previous 20 days without consuming additional power.

When overloaded, the system will cut off the circuit automatically to prevent fires.

It will also send warnings when any resident is found charging electric bikes within residential buildings, a common violation likely to cause explosions or fires, according to Visionet.

When the chip was installed for a senior citizen living alone in Tianjin in northern China during a pilot operation in 2020, it sent an alert to a community worker when low electricity use was detected. Staff found the elderly person, who strayed and failed to find the way home, in time.

"The chip was originally developed for industrial use, but engineers found that it also functions to ensure the safety of seniors living alone," said Gu Liting, executive president of Shanghai Visionet Information Technology Co.

The smart chip has already been able to recognize and monitor the operations of about 10 common electric appliances, such as air-conditioners and microwaves.

"If no abnormality is detected, the life of the seniors won't be bothered," Gu added.

Local governments are applying more intelligent technologies to care for the city's increasing number of elderly residents. Smart gadgets can ensure the safety of the elderly living alone or the physically challenged while reducing the burden on community workers.

By the end of 2020, the number of residents 60 years or older in Shanghai stood at 5.34 million, or 36 percent of the city's registered population. Some 90 percent are taken care of at home, as the traditional virtue of filial piety means children are reluctant to put their elderly parents in nursing homes.

Across the country, about 118 million senior citizens are living alone at home by the end of 2020.

Smart chips safeguard seniors living alone
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Gu Liting, executive president of Shanghai Visionet Information Technology Co, checks the smart chip installed on Granny Wu's electric meter.

In Hongkou's Ouyang community, the first batch of 10 households have had the chips installed on their meters, while installations have begun for another 150 households.

The equipment will be promoted more widely across the subdistrict, which has 802 seniors over 80 years old who live alone, said Wang Lei, Party secretary of the subdistrict.

"We aim to develop more digital governance scenarios to offer more delicate caring services to the seniors while protecting their privacy," Wang said. The installation and maintenance costs are covered by the subdistrict.

Zhou Juexin, 68, another resident who benefited from the chip, said she no longer needs to stand on her bed to repeatedly disconnect the air-conditioner to prevent overloading.

"I cannot quite understand the technology, but I feel safe now," Zhou said. "I can use an electric blanket in the winter with the protection of the high-tech gadget."

Mao Xiaoyun, a neighborhood committee staffer, and Zhou Yali, an official with the subdistrict, volunteered to be Zhou's emergency contacts, visiting as soon as possible in the event of receiving an alert on their phones.

"We used to visit Zhou or call at night frequently to ensure her safety, which may disturb her life and privacy," Zhou said. With the chips, they can offer service more effectively, she added.

They will still visit Zhou about twice a week, mainly to chat with her to ease her loneliness, she said.

Smart chips safeguard seniors living alone
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The analysis system of the Visionet chip

The intelligent chip has helped to eliminate safety risks for multiple seniors living alone in the Ouyang community since the first of its kind was installed in December 2020.

In January 2021, the terminal of the smart chip detected abnormally low power consumption at the home of a resident surnamed Shi who was living alone on Tianbao Road W. An alert was triggered and sent to a nearby community worker who paid an immediate visit and found Shi went to stay with his daughter temporarily.

In March 2021, an electric appliance at the home of a female resident surnamed He living alone on Jiangwan Road E. suffered a shortcut and began to spark. The chip on her electric meter cut the power immediately and the system called her relative, community worker and property management company official simultaneously. They visited He and eliminated the risk immediately.

Zhou Zhiren, a senior citizen in the Ouyang community, said in a letter of thanks to the subdistrict and the company that "the smart chip has made us elderly also be able to enjoy a convenient life in the digital era."

In Ouyang, other senior-care services, such as meal deliveries, daycare centers and service stations, have been put in place to enrich the lives of the elderly, said Party secretary Wang.

More such practices should be developed and be promoted nationwide, said Peng Xizhe, director of the Center for Population and Development Policy Studies of Fudan University.

"The technology is not complicated, but with the innovative ideas, it becomes a quite effective tool in the senior care sector," Peng said.

However, he said new technology should never replace human care to make the elderly feel warm.

Smart chips safeguard seniors living alone
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The smart chip is easy to install on an electricity meter.

A complete senior-care system can be established only with a joint effort from the government, market, society and family members, as well as assistance from technology, he said.

In another recent example, a similar device was installed on a water meter for some seniors living alone in Changning District.

If the meter stops running for 12 hours, the chip will alert the subdistrict automatically. If the amount of water usage is below 0.01 cubic meters in 12 hours, the chip will remind neighborhood committee staff to pay a visit.

Other smart gadgets such as wireless door catches and smoke detectors are being installed for local seniors living alone.

The magnetic door mechanism, which will send an alarm if the door hasn't been opened for several days, has also been used to supervise the home quarantine of those returning from overseas in some local neighborhoods amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite difficulty walking, Wu still goes downstairs several times a week from the fourth floor. She said with the smart chip, she need not worry about whether she might forget to switch off any appliance when she goes out.

The road she lives along was the first road built in Hongkou in 1911 (formerly known as Scott Road). It features houses and villas in English, Japanese and shikumen (stone-gate) styles. Apart from Lu Xun, the street was once home to many other literati and revolutionaries, including Mao Dun (1896-1931). It also housed Qu Qiubai (1899-1935), leader of the Communist Party of China in the late 1920s, and Zeng Liansong (1917-1999), designer of the national flag.

"I like visiting these old residences of celebrities as well as nearby Luxun Park, which is the site of my best memory with my husband," said Wu.

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