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Robots here to help

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Credit: Heriot-Watt University

Humankind could do with a bit of help right now and robots might just be able to provide some much needed support.

Thanks to a world first pioneered at the UK’s National Robotarium at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, a new multi-user conversational robot is being developed that will safely enhance elderly healthcare. Pioneered through an international collaboration of European and Asian institutions, the project, called SPRING (Socially Pertinent Robots in Gerontological Healthcare) is funded by Horizon2020, and is the first to come from the Robotarium. These Socially Assistive Robots (SARs) will be able to talk and interact with elderly citizens in healthcare facilities – with social distancing already built in.

“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,” said Professor Oliver Lemon from Heriot-Watt University.

He continued: “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.

“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 elder care 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 now take forward ‘new research into conversational AI, computer vision, machine learning and human-robot interaction, alongside human behaviour analysis and sensorimotor robot control’. The goal is to equip robots to better understand group dynamics and pick out individuals being left on their own for longer. These robots will also be able to talk with patients, their families and staff, face-to-face.

COVID-19

The touch-free and hands-free nature of the SPRING developed robots are hugely important factors in light of infectious diseases like COVID-19. Stopping any spread through touch is a key element of this innovation. And a group of international experts in robotics have penned an editorial this week stating that robots are already combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Already, we have seen robots being deployed for disinfection, delivering medications and food, measuring vital signs, and assisting border controls,” the researchers wrote in Science Robotics.

Henrik Christensen, director of UC San Diego’s Contextual Robotics Institute and Marcia McNutt, president of the National Research Council and president of the National Academy of Sciences were two of the experts who signed the editorial.

“For disease prevention, robot-controlled noncontact ultraviolet (UV) surface disinfection has already been used because COVID-19 spreads not only from person to person via close contact respiratory droplet transfer but also via contaminated surfaces,” they said.

And they believe the future of events and business is likely to be shaped by robotics.

“COVID-19 may become the tipping point of how future organisations operate,” the editorial argued. “Rather than cancelling large international exhibitions and conferences, new forms of gathering–virtual rather than in-person attendance–may increase. Virtual attendees may become accustomed to remote engagement via a variety of local robotic avatars and controls.

“Overall, the impact of COVID-19 may drive sustained research in robotics to address risks of infectious diseases. Without a sustainable approach to research and evaluation, history will repeat itself, and technology robots will not be ready ready to assist for the next incident.”

These positive robot stories and expert opinions show how this technology can play a vital role in improving everyday life for the most vulnerable citizens. The huge potential of robotics is a topic that has featured many times on these pages, in terms of the value the tech can add to humankind. Whether it is by removing the monotony from day jobs, or creating new employment opportunities, society and governments must focus on maximising the gains and managing the fears.

We are tracking information on online challenges, funding calls, and initiatives dedicated to tackling COVID-19. Sign up for our regular newsletters in the box below for all the latest on these and please share relevant details to colleagues and friends to help accelerate solutions.

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Susan Robertson
Written By

Susan is the co-founder of Innovators Magazine and a consultant for OnePoint5 Media. Susan is also a member of the UNFCCC-led Resilience Frontiers Nexus group and a board member of the APOPO Foundation UK.

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