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Meet Mr. Robin, grandma's robot buddy

Story highlights

  • Robot carers being trialed to help elderly people
  • Giraffplus robot monitors a person's health and lets them communicate with carers
  • Care o bot robot helps old people carry items and open doors
  • Some researchers warn that robots shouldn't impair people's autonomy

Almost eight years have passed since Bill Gates hailed a new era of "a robot in every home," and for most of us the sci-fi dream of an all-purpose automated assistant seems no closer.

But in her Rome apartment, 94-year-old author Lea Mina Ralli, known as "Nonna Lea" (Grandma Lea), enjoys 24-hour care courtesy of her live-in android, which she has named "Mr. Robin." The machine comprises a tablet screen attached to a mobile unit, remotely connected to sensors around Lea's home that monitor her vital signs and activity. It feeds this information to the carers who visit her regularly and signals them in a case of emergency, such as a bad fall or elevated blood pressure.

Mr. Robin also provides the more basic but valuable service of keeping Lea permanently connected to her family and medical staff, as they can converse via the robot's tablet-screen face at the touch of a button. This improved remote access allows her to remain independent.

"It is very useful for older people who prefer to live in their own home where there are memories and comforts," Ralli said. "This automaton can become the companion of every elderly person who, while having to live alone, likes to feel protected."

Robot carers

The Italian is one of six participants in a ground-breaking trial of the GiraffPlus system, an EU-funded project to bring robotics into the homes of the elderly and infirm, ahead of a commercial launch in 2015. It targets a demographic whose care has become a high-stakes riddle; aging populations are projected to push the cost of Alzheimer's patients above $1 trillion by 2050 in the United States alone, while growing use of care homes and their 24-hour support is also straining resources.

    The team behind GiraffPlus hope taking their work out of labs and into people's homes will convince the public and health workers that the technology is a viable option, with the capacity to improve quality of life.

    "We're trying to understand personal requirements rather than general requirements," said Amy Loutfi, the project coordinator and roboticist of Örebro University, Sweden. "The data can help us to understand if someone is eating or sleeping properly, and how to satisfy that need on a technical level. We have to break down broad user needs into something the technology can do."

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    Loutfi sees the robot as a supporting component in a system, rather than a replacement for existing methods or carers.

    "You still need two people for the interaction -- the robot does not remove human contact from the loop but facilitates it," she said. "What's interesting with this project is that we don't need all the components in every home. People have different needs so we can work out what sensors are required and then have modular devices to interact with."

    Loutfi points to existing simpler automatons, such as the Roomba vacuum cleaner and smart coffee machines for use by elderly patients. The Rosenborg Center in Denmark has created an environment populated with such tools.

    But the emerging field of "robotherapy" suggests that wide-ranging interaction with an intelligent robot can deliver unique benefits. Studies have shown this can reduce feelings of stress and loneliness, while improving communication and social skills.

    Robotherapy

    While GiraffPlus largely facilitates interaction, fully autonomous service robots entering the market can engage in relatively complex relationships. Accompany's Care-o-bot 3 design is undergoing a final trial with elderly subjects in smart homes, in which it provides a number of services, from carrying items and opening doors, to monitoring the subject and recommending activities for them -- such as exercise or drinking water.

    "We're trying to have the technology allow people the same level of interaction with the environment as when they were young," says project co-ordinator Farshid Amirabdollahian, associate professor in the school of computer science at the University of Hertfordshire, in the UK, highlighting the problem of isolation. "If they're being looked after -- being fed and not falling -- they are more active and connected to people. They can see their children. If it allows them to stay independent and socially active it can keep them out of care homes for longer."

    He sees a wealth of health function possibilities. "There could be programs to help people to stay fit, have better nutrition or keep the mind active. Many of these are available as apps so it's not difficult to migrate these into robot assistance."

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    The Care-o-bot 3 enables interaction with the user through a tablet that allows them to see through the robot's "eyes" and give it instructions, or receive suggestions, accompanied by an empathic expression such as a sad face if the user ignores it. "The holy grail is for it to understand language," says Amirabdollahian, but admits that communication is limited to around the level of Siri, with the robot unable to comprehend background information.

    The design will enter the market within three years pending final trials, and prospects for acceptance have been boosted by the introduction of official standards for service robots, passed by the International Standards Organization (ISO) in January, creating guidelines for safety around people.

    "A simple rule in the low-risk category is that the robot should be less powerful than you," says Dr. Gurinder Virk of the ISO.

    Virk believes the new rules are critical for commercial viability. "The low-risk model opens the market and there has been more enthusiasm from manufacturers. There are many companies with robot products but they are terrified that something goes wrong and then courts would liquidate them."

    Growing market

    The market is already growing rapidly, with 3 million personal and domestic service robots sold in 2012 -- a 20% increase on 2011. That figure could increase sharply, with the International Federation of Robotics projecting over 15 million sales between 2013-2016, with around 6,400 units for elderly and disability assistance over this time.

    While the systems are initially expensive, proponents believe it will save in the longer term by delaying or preventing future treatment cost. Further, elderly people represent a lucrative market; globally, the spending power of consumers age 60 and older will hit $15 trillion by the end of this decade, up from $8 trillion in 2010, according to research from Euromonitor.

    But there are ethical questions to address too, as service robots may threaten as well as enable autonomy, according to researchers Tom Sorell and Heather Draper, authors of research paper "Robot carers, ethics, and older people."

    "The main tension is autonomy and safety, where the user is not allowed to judge," says Sorell, professor of philosophy and politics at the UK's University of Warwick. "Our view is that the user should be able to keep falls to themselves ... if the user is not cognitively impaired they should be allowed to live independently without interference unless there is a very serious health risk for them."

    They say that focus groups with elderly people reflect a desire for a limited role for robotic support. "They wanted the robot to be assertive at times such as in reminding them to take tablets," says Draper, professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Birmingham, in the UK. "They were willing to be nagged for a direct health benefit rather than health promotion like standing in front of the TV, turning it off and telling them to get up and drink water. They did not like that."

    Sorell and Draper have explored what is the ideal role for a service robot and recommend a focus on creating functions that enable users to act for themselves, rather than an empathic relationship with a human surrogate. It is an issue that has divided roboticists; Accompany has developed "coach" and "carer" roles, while Japanese firm AIST create pet-style robotic seal helpers.

    Form and function will continue to evolve as scientists try to perfect automated support without breaching ethical barriers. For now, robots such as Mr. Robin offer a priceless escape from isolation for people like Nonna Lea.

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