An Irish university has developed a robot to help battle loneliness amongst the elderly and those living in care homes.
Engineers from Trinity College, Dublin, unveiled ‘Stevie II’ on Wednesday, an upgraded version of Ireland’s first socially assistive robot with advanced artificial intelligence (AI) features.
The new and updated version of ‘Stevie I’ can be deployed in long-term care environments to help seniors and people living with disability.
Stevie II, a more mobile and dextrous model of its predecessor, uses advanced sensing technologies including laser rangefinders, depth cameras and vision sensors to interact intelligently with humans and its surrounding environment.
The Trinity team consulted with a wide range of experts during the robot’s development, including nurses and caregivers, as well as older adults living at home or in long-term care facilities.
Among those partners is ALONE, a national organisation that supports older people to age at home. ALONE currently provides and uses technology to support older people to remain independent and socially connected.
The concept behind Stevie was initially to carry out menial chores in care homes like automatically reminding residents of time to take medication. However, research found that those living in homes enjoyed the social aspect of Stevie, noting that he was fun to talk to and lifted their spirits.
The robot being so expressive helped to humanise the technology and led researchers to believe Stevie could have a wide range of high-impact uses, performing assistive tasks, helping caregivers and provide access to existing technologies like video calling, which can be inaccessible to older adults.
Stevie has face and voice recognition, which means he can address those he is speaking to directly, and understand and reply to commands.
One elderly resident, Tony McCarthy, who worked as part of Stevie’s focus group, said as an asthma sufferer, having Stevie around gives a sense of security.
“I have asthma and he reminds me what medications I have to take,” he said.
“More importantly, the capacity the robot has to directly make a phone call to emergency services to bring help if a person is incapacitated, I think that is very positive.
“Especially for people who have a fall, and couldn’t reach their panic button, with Stevie, he would directly be able to call emergency services.”
Niamh Donnelly, who specialises in the artificial intelligence behind Stevie, says a more humanised side of robotics is the most requested feature.
She said: “When we brought Stevie around people rather than them expecting him to pick something up for them, they really just wanted to interact with Stevie, have a conversation with him or get some information from him.
“That turned our focus towards the more social aspect of it.
“When we were testing the pilot, even from a technical background what I was doing a lot of the time was talking to people and trying to figure out what they wanted from the technology.
“In the future, I’d love to work on small talk with Stevie. It’s extremely difficult as it’s very context dependent, so I’d love to see Stevie develop that ability.
“We’d like him to be able to have some banter with people.”
Over the coming months, the team are planning several more pilots of the technology, including a trial in the UK, where Stevie will be tested in long-term care facilities in the Cornwall region as part of the European-funded EPIC project.