AI and robotics experts from the National Robotarium have begun work on a ‘world first’ conversational robot for use in the healthcare industry.
The project, known as SPRING (Socially Pertinent Robots in Gerontological Healthcare), is part of a multi-million-pound collaboration involving experts from eight European and Asian institutions and is the first to be announced by the National Robotarium, which is set to open at Heriot-Watt University in 2021.
The four-year collaboration will develop socially assistive robots (SARs) which have the ability to perform multi-person interactions and engage in social conversation for the first time within a healthcare setting. In particular, the project will focus on supporting elderly patients by bringing social robots into gerontological healthcare.
Social robots have been introduced into a range of areas in recent years, from museums and shopping centres to hospitals and retirement homes. While these robots have been able to provide valuable information and entertainment for users, the technology has faced significant challenges.
Key limitations include the fact that both the hardware and software are often designed specifically for reactive, single-user interactions. Often this leads to limited one-on-one conversations based on a restricted set of scripted responses and/or actions.
This latest project, according to researchers, could help overcome key challenges and have a significant positive impact in a healthcare setting.
“Research shows that the careful use of robots in group settings can have a positive impact on health, such as decreased stress and loneliness, and improved mood and sociability,” said Professor Oliver Lemon, Heriot-Watt University.
He added: “Healthcare practitioners have been supportive of the use of robots during the non-medical phases of time in hospital because social robots can help explain complex concepts to patients with limited medical knowledge.
“Social robot technology is of interest for eldercare because robot companionship has the long-term potential to better connect people with each other. Social robots could improve both psychological well-being and the relationship between patients and hospital professionals.”
SPRING will explore the use of social robots to understand the needs of various individuals and group situations, then make appropriate decisions such as identifying patients that have been waiting alone for a long time – or those who might be anxious.
Ultimately, researchers hope that social robots will engage in face-to-face conversation with patients, staff members and family members.
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Professor Lemon commented: “While overcoming the limitations of current social robots raises numerous scientific and technological challenges, it has the potential to create tremendous social impact and economic value.
“The National Robotarium’s focus on creating societal benefits is ideally aligned to addressing such challenges. This type of technology is touch-free and hands-free so will be in great demand in the future as it will reduce the risk and spread of infection.”