Using robots to serve the elderly at home

Chicago 26 August 2009Robots that lend a very human-like helping hand to healthy elderly people with limited mobility may be on the horizon, thanks to three University of Illinois at Chicago engineers and a Rush University nursing specialist.


"We want to help elderly people communicate with robots, to tell them what they need, and to perform physical activities", stated Milos Zefran, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Milos Zefran is lead investigator in a three-year, $989.000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to develop software to allow the elderly to communicate with robots that can respond to a wide range of verbal language, non-verbal gestures and touch.

"If we can help the elderly remain independent and continue living in their own homes, that will improve their health outlook while relieving the burden on family members and health care providers", Milos Zefran stated.

His UIC partners are Jezekiel Ben-Arie, professor of computer and electrical engineering; Barbara Di Eugenio, associate professor of computer science; and Marquis Foreman, professor emeritus of behavioural health science at UIC and professor and chair of adult health and gerontological nursing at Rush University.

Milos Zefran's expertise is in robotics and computerized sense of touch, called haptics. Jezekiel Ben-Arie specializes in computer vision and pattern recognition, Barbara Di Eugenio in natural language processing, and Marquis Foreman in nursing care for the elderly.

The communication interface software will have at its core a novel adaptive and reliable recognition methodology called RISq - Recognition by Indexing and Sequencing - patented by Jezekiel Ben-Arie. RISq will allow the robot to comprehend speech altered by impairments and to learn and adapt to such speech.

By combining techniques from natural language processing and haptics, the robot will understand and correctly respond to various forms of human touch. It will also know how to respond to the user safely when performing everyday chores such as cooking or making a bed.

"We'll start by observing interaction between human helpers and the elderly", Milos Zefran stated. "We'll identify what kind of language, physical interactions and non-verbal interactions are used. Then we'll develop a mathematical framework to model this interaction so it can be treated by the robot as a single way of communicating."

The research team will program and test a robot and devise refinements as the project progresses. "The human-robot interface is really a long-standing, open problem that won't be solved in three years", Milos Zefran stated. "But we'll have a working prototype by then, and we'll know what additional research needs to be done."

Milos Zefran added that this research could also find widespread use in delivery of institutionally based health care, where routine tasks now done by nurses could be handled by robots. "If robots can alleviate some of the burden nurses face, they then could spend more time where they're really needed - providing the human contact that a robot can't replace."

Milos Zefran said the work will include developing seminars or a new graduate or upper-level undergraduate course that considers the various factors that allow robots to perform more sophisticated tasks.

The NSF award is funded under the federal government's economic stimulus plan, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Source: University of Illinois at Chicago

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