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Is robotics a solution to the growing needs of the elderly?

Is robotics a solution to the growing needs of the elderly?

By Gabriella Mulligan Technology of business reporter

  • 17 March 2017
  • From the section Business

The receptionist at the Institute of Media Innovation, at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, is a smiling brunette called Nadine.

 

From a distance, nothing about her appearance seems unusual. It's only on closer inspection that doubts set in. Yes - she's a robot.

Nadine is an "intelligent" robot capable of autonomous behaviour. For a machine, her looks and behaviour are remarkably natural.

She can recognise people and human emotions, and make associations using her knowledge database - her "thoughts", so to speak.

At IMI, they are still fine-tuning her receptionist skills. But soon, Nadine might be your grandma's nurse.

Ageing populations

Research into the use of robots as carers or nurses is growing. It's not hard to see why.

The global population is ageing, putting strain on healthcare systems.

Although many 80-year-olds may only need a friend to chat to, or someone to keep an eye out in case they fall, increasingly the elderly are suffering serious ailments, such as dementia.

Image copyright Rex Features Image caption Friendships like that between Frank Langella's character and his robot carer in the film Robot and Frank could be a thing of the future

How can we provide quality care to address this array of needs? Many experts think an answer could be robots.

Nadine is being developed by a team led by Prof Nadia Thalmann. They have been working on virtual human research for years; Nadine has existed for three.

"She has human-like capacity to recognise people, emotions, and at the same time to remember them," says Prof Thalmann.

Nadine will automatically adapt to the person and situation she deals with, making her ideally suited to looking after the elderly, Prof Thalmann says.

The robot can monitor a patient's wellbeing, call for help in an emergency, chat, read stories or play games. "The humanoid is never tired or bored," says Prof Thalmann. "It will just do what it is dedicated for."

Nadine isn't perfect, though. She has trouble understanding accents, and her hand co-ordination isn't the best. But Prof Thalmann says robots could be caring for the elderly within 10 years.


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