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Robot nurse escorts and schmoozesthe elderly

Pearl flirts with old men. But women like her too. Her wide eyes and smiling lips lend her face an expression that hovers between vacuous gaiety and humble servility. But don’t let the vacant look fool you. Pearl is one sharp cookie.

She whizzes about reminding her clients to eat, drink, take medicine, or use the bathroom. She also guides the old folks from room to room as she chats about the weather or TV listings. This sweetheart of the elderly is a self-directed mobile robot with advanced artificial intelligence to assist people with the activities of daily living.

She may never win a beauty contest, yet she’s won the hearts of elderly folks at the Longwood Retirement Community in Oakmont, Pa., where field testing on the 4-and-a-half-foot-tall robot nurse is underway this summer.

Her designers say they took special care to make her pretty, but it’s what’s inside that counts: Two Intel® Pentium® 4 processor-based PCs run software to endow her with wit and ability to navigate; a differential drive system propels her; Wi-Fi helps her communicate as she rolls along; laser range finders, stereo camera systems, and sonar sensors guide her around obstructions; microphones help her recognize words; speakers enable others to hear her synthesized speech; an actuated head unit swivels in lifelike animation. All this and more is housed in her slender frame.

"We're getting along beautifully," says one older gentleman as Pearl leads him to a room for his therapy session at Longwood. "But, I won't say whether she's my kind of girl," he quips.

Pearly greats
Part of an interdisciplinary research initiative focused on robotic technology for the aged, the nursebot project brings together researchers from four schools: the University of Michigan, Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, and Stanford. Funding for the project comes from several sources, including Intel.

Dollars from the Intel Research Council’s Applications Committee help University of Michigan’s Martha Pollack and Satinder Singh develop the robot’s software system. Pollack is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and an Intel principal investigator.

“The grant from Intel has been tremendously helpful for us,” Pollack tells Circuit News. “It’s giving us the opportunity to research reinforcement learning techniques. We’re programming the robot to learn over time what interaction strategies work best with people.

“Imagine putting this system in someone’s home and watching what they react to or don’t react to, when they seem to be happy and when they don’t, and modifying the robot’s interaction strategy on a very personal basis. This is what Intel is helping us do.”

Pearl of great price
Don’t look for a nursebot at your pharmacy or health care supply store any time soon. A consumer version of the computerized caregiver is still years away.

For one thing, these robots are very expensive. Pearl is a one-of-a-kind, costing close to $100,000. To ready a mass-market version of the automaton, researchers must overcome a rash of other issues as well, such as battery power and the robot’s inability to navigate steps.

So in the meantime Pollack has installed her software, dubbed Autominder, on platforms more affordable than the robot, such as a PDA and a walker. Although not as appealing as Pearl, a PDA configured with the software costs far less—about $500 when packaged with in-home sensors. Pollack’s also installed Autominder on a walker. Equipped with audio-visual displays and sensors, the walker, too, is less expensive than the robot and guides the elderly from place to place.

Researchers see great potential in both the PDA and the walker, but Pearl gets all the press.

Pearl as professional, pal, or pet?
“We didn’t use the robot just to gather attention. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how much attention it brought,” says Pollack. “From a research perspective there are some real advantages when using a robot as a platform.”

For example, some of Pollack’s colleagues say the robot’s human form may provide a kind of social interaction that’s good for people who are often very isolated.

“But nursebots will never be a substitute for real nurses,” Pollack’s quick to point out.

“We’re not trying to replace human caregivers,” she says. “We don’t think we could or would want to. We just want to supplement because with the upcoming demographic shift there aren’t going to be enough people to be full-time human caregivers for older adults,” she says, referring to the global trend of increasing life spans and the enormous challenge facing the technical community researching how to sustain independence and preserve quality of life among older adults.

The cresting age wave
Intel’s Eric Dishman, manager of Intel’s Proactive Health Research lab, agrees. He says countries around the globe will soon face the problems associated with a cresting age wave.

“Starting at the end of this decade, the first wave of baby boomers will retire and the population of elderly people will swell,” says Dishman. “Countries must somehow increase the quality of care for growing numbers of people over 65, the most expensive demographic to care for, while somehow reducing health care costs.”

Dishman and other researchers believe technology is the answer to affordably meet the needs of this demographic, but many challenges still face researchers developing home health care solutions.

Dishman and Pollack have been instrumental in addressing these challenges while gathering broad support for the cause. Both are active members of the Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST), an organization that grew out of Intel’s research and now has members representing over 300 technology and health care companies and universities.

“The objectives of the nursebot project really align well with Intel’s goals in home health care,” says Pollack.

The robot Pearl provides a research platform to test out a range of ideas for assisting elderly people. Researchers hope that such autonomous mobile robots will one day live in the homes chronically ill elderly persons to perform a variety of tasks, such as

  • reminding elderly patients to visit the bathroom, take medicine, drink, or see the doctor.
  • connecting patients with caregivers through the Internet. The robot is a platform for tele-presence technology whereby professional caregivers can interact directly with remote patients, reducing the frequency of doctor visits.
  • collecting data and monitoring the well-being of patients. Emergency conditions, such as heart failure or high blood sugar levels, can be avoided with systematic data collection.
  • manipulating objects around the home such as the refrigerator, washing machine, or microwave. Researchers say arthritis is the main reason elderly give up independent living.
  • taking over certain social functions. Many elderly people are forced to live alone, deprived of social contacts. The nursebot may help shut-ins feel less isolated.

Pollack and other researchers say the time has come for mobile robots in the home-care sector. They point to the technology currently available to develop robust, reliable robots. They also describe the unprecedented need for cost-effective solutions in the elderly care sector.

If these researchers are correct, Pearl and her progeny might forever change the way health care professionals serve the growing ranks of older folks and take human robot interaction to new heights.




By Daniel P. Jajeh, Employee Comm Date 31-07-2005 Print this article




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