Professor Goldie Nejat, University of Toronto
Meet Brian: he encourages those with Dementia to eat. Casper helps with food preparation and Tangi who helps people get together for bingo!
Hannah - Hello. I’m Hannah Critchlow reporting from Washington DC for this special Naked Neuroscience podcast in partnership with the International Neuro Ethics Society and the Wellcome Trust where we’ll be taking a journey into the future to explore how brain research will shape our future society. In the last episode, we welcomed in the era of the brain. We discussed the colossal cash injections that will allow us to peer into the human brain as never before and we start to discuss how, as a society and as scientists, we should best make use of the data that comes out. In this episode, we meet Brian, the robot who’s helping the elderly remember to eat.
Brian - Hi. My name is Brian. You look very nice today. Please join me for lunch. Today’s menu includes some pasta, apple slices, and water.
Hannah - And Tangy who encourages people to get together to play memory boosting games.
Tangy - Congratulations! You have won Bingo. Great job!
Hannah - And we discuss the ethics of robots in warfare.
Barbara - People are concerned about who is responsible if for instance, in the context of warfare, one of the robotics that’s being used is out of control or is doing something that it wasn’t planned to do because we’ve all had the experience of computers going badly wrong.
Hannah - All to come…
First up, with a growing elderly population whose cognitive abilities are declining, could robots help jog memories and support elderly people in their daily activities whilst also keeping them socially active? I met Goldie Nejat. She’s director of the Institute for Robotics and Mechatronics at Toronto University. She spoke at the society’s evening public lecture on how robots can help the elderly.
Goldie - The ideas that we’re trying to design are socially assistive robots that can help the elderly. Robot can engage people in recreational activities, memory games, as well as help them with activities of daily living that they may find difficult to do on their own.
Hannah - And these are 3D walking, talking robots that can also emotionally and socially engage with the elderly?
Goldie - So, the idea is to have natural communication between a robot and a person. So, just like we display expressions through our face and body and through what we say, the robots do exactly the same thing and they’re embodied in their environments so that they have a better engagement tool with people. So, the person can be engaged looking at a physical 3D robot in front of them.
Hannah - Do they look a little bit like a person or more like a robot? Are you almost tricking the elderly into thinking that they’re interacting with a person?
Goldie - So they all look very robotic. So you can actually see the metal, the wires, the plastic, and that’s done on purpose. And even with the Brian robot, for example, when it moves its arms you can hear the motors, there’s noise, and that’s all done because we want to make sure that people understand these are robots they’re interacting with. We’re not trying to fool them into thinking that these are people.
Hannah - And we’re now going to hear a little sample of the type of prompting and encouragement that the robot Brian can give whilst trying to help the elderly remember to eat when they’ve got Alzheimer’s.
Brian - That’s good helping of food you have there. Please take a bite.
Goldie - So, Brian prompts a person through the steps of eating by encouraging them to, for example, to pick up their utensil, bring the food to their mouth, tells a joke during that time and the idea is that during the interaction, the robot is happy when the person’s doing it. It displays facial expressions, happy big smile, excited voice, and gestures, body language. It gets excited, does a little dance when the person eats properly and the same extent, we also do a few different expressions where the robot will get sad if a person get disengaged in eating. So, if they get distracted and look away, the robot tries to reengage them by getting sad that they’re not interacting with it anymore. And so kind of, that’s the idea of how we display expressions too when a person’s interacting with us. The robot uses that to keep a person engaged in eating.
Hannah - Some people with Alzheimer’s might not remember how to make a meal and so you’ve developed Casper to help with that?
Goldie - Yes. So Casper and the idea is that when it’s meal time, for example, Casper can go find the person, bring them to the kitchen, and really prompt them through the steps and make it a fun activity. You know, recipe finding, what they wanted to make and then go through the steps and show videos of how to exactly make the food, and then so that the person will enjoy eating the food after and they have some encouragement to do so.
Hannah - And then Tangy is a robot that assists with playing bingo.
Goldie - Yeah. So Tangy is a group robot. So the idea is that it facilitates a few people, you know, five to ten individuals playing a bingo game and the robot provides encouragement, calls out the bingo numbers, help if someone forgot to mark for example, a bingo number.
Tangy - B12 was previously called, please mark this number on your card. Wow! You are getting close to having bingo.
Goldie - And then again, celebrates with the person when they win bingo.
Hannah - And how do the elderly react to these robots? I mean, we’re talking about a generation that weren’t brought up with computers. So how do they react? Do they really engage with the robot?
Goldie - The robot engagement or interaction with the person is very natural. The person doesn’t have to learn how to use the robot for example, right? It’s pretty much the same way we interact with a person, another person. So the idea here is that the robot is engaging and displays expressions and behaviours similar to how we do. So that learning curve is gone. So this whole idea of using technology that you’ve never used before, the ease of use of the robot promotes its acceptance.
Hannah - And one part of the reason for studying this, is it to try and replace care as human social interaction, humans that would normally help and support these activities for the elderly and is that ethical?
Goldie - That’s a very good question. So robots are being designed, in our case, to help the healthcare professionals. So we do actually – a lot of our interactions is with the healthcare professionals themselves to find out what they’re needs and wants are. And really, we’re trying to design robots as assistants or tools that they can use so they can focus their attention on, you know, high-level tasks that they need to do and not only they can do and the robot can supplement them. A lot of the jobs, there’s a lot of turn-over rates because go in they’re very overwhelmed and they leave the job. So the idea is that we help use the robots to minimize stress and the workload that they have, and especially since we have this growing population of elderly people, right? And we need to take care of them find a way. So we want to assist both the elderly individuals, right? To benefit, but as well as the healthcare professionals in helping them do some of this repetitive tasks that the robot could take over for them.
Hannah - And at the moment, how much would Casper cost?
Goldie - I should mention they’re all kind of at the research and development stage. So the good thing about our robots is that we’re trying to use off-the-shelf components, right? A lot of the sensors can just be easily purchased and integrated, so we’ve kept the costs down in designing and developing these robots. So to build something like Casper or Brian has cost us, maybe five to ten thousand dollars to do. And the idea is that as mass production happens of these robots, we can keep the cost affordable so that people can buy them.