Judging by recent surveys, most people seem to think that robots that are actually useful will lead to some sort of apocalyptic machine uprising. But look past the military bots and automated job-stealers, and one of the most obvious applications of a service robot is an entirely unthreatening task humans are increasingly failing to meet demand for: caring.Six elderly people across Europe currently have a new companion: a GiraffPlus robot, or Mr. Robin, as one 94-year-old taking part in the trial rather adorably calls it in the video below. It’s part of an EU-funded project to use robotics to help elderly people who want to stay at home remain independent past the point they’d usually be unable to live alone due to physical or cognitive difficulties.
Amy Loutfi, director of Computer Engineering at Sweden’s Örebro Univeristy and coordinator of the GiraffPlus project, told me more about their work. The robot is actually just part of the system, which includes a kind of smart home aspect to it, with environmental sensors around the house feeding back information about the inhabitant’s movements, and physiological sensors to track their health.Motion sensors track if someone is in a certain room, while pressure sensors under beds and sofas can tell if someone is sitting down. There are also sensors that are activated when certain appliances are plugged in, and sensors that monitor when doors and windows are open or closed, not to mention temperature and humidity trackers.Then there are devices that measure weight, blood pressure and blood sugar, and so on. “All of the data from the sensors is stored in the database and based on this we can extract some activities, like if the person is sleeping or the person got up during the night; the person is watching television or cooking,” said Loutfi.The robot—which is not autonomous—complements this by allowing virtual visits from friends, family, and healthcare professionals. “It’s basically the equivalent of Skype on wheels,” said Loutfi. The user calls the robot and is able to direct it around the house to check in on the inhabitant, in a similar way to the telepresence robot we saw last week. It’s intended to make visits easier for those who aren’t immediately at hand—if you saw someone was up in the middle of the night, for instance, you could use the bot to make a virtual visit.
Separately, each device is nothing we haven’t seen before, but used together they create a 24/7 monitoring system that demonstrates quite how machines can outperform us in roles that are traditionally considered inherently human, like looking after loved ones. “The system comprises all these different aspects, but it’s putting them together that is really the novelty of the project,” said Loutfi.It’s also remarkable that the system is already in use in the real world, albeit among initial test subjects. Loutfi admitted that brought its own issues, especially given the different needs and habits of each user. “It’s not trivial to really make that jump to deploy the technology in the field,” she said. Challenges could be as simple as someone deciding to dust one of the sensors and accidentally moving it, or unplugging one because it was making a noise or shining a light.Then there’s the issue of collating all that data into something useful. Loutfi said that developing a suitable interface for interpreting the constant stream of data is one of the main goals of the research project. At the moment, only their own medical team have access to the information, and they’re able to see either a weekly or monthly report based on the data collected.It’s intended as a complement to rather than a replacement for human-to-human visits, and Loutfi suggested it brought advantages like more continuous and objective measurements of how a person’s getting on. And the robotic part is no excuse not to keep in touch with your great aunty Doris. “It doesn’t necessarily take away the amount of social interaction; I would like to think it actually increases the amount of social interaction because it makes it easier for you to get on touch with the elderly person living at home,” she said.There are currently two of the systems in Italy, two in Spain, and two in Sweden, and while the research project ends this year, Loutfi said their plan was to make one of the companies involved responsible for marketing it for wider use.Quite how enthusiastically service robots like this will be taken up probably depends on our own trust in technology, something that seems to have been wavering of late. In a PEW poll earlier this year, two thirds of American responders said robot caregivers for the elderly were a bad idea. A survey published today in the UK found that 46 percent of people thought technology was “evolving too quickly and undermining traditional ways of life.”But despite that distrust, the EU reports that the European market for robots assisting older people is expected to reach €13 billion by 2016. I guess we'll just have to wait and see whether that will end up predominantly in the form of multi-sensor monitoring systems, or animatronic baby seals.