Robots and disability

Graham Clements
Robots are already helping people with disabilities. In Melbourne people with autism and dementia are using robots in trials. La Trobe University’s Dr Rajiv Khosla is in charge of the trials. He has created the software for seven small robots that can sing, dance and play games. They read interactive stories and newspapers. They can issue reminders to take medications. The robots learn how their user is feeling and then respond appropriately. Dr Khosla envisages a future where many people with disabilities use robots.
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Graham Clements on 08/01/2015
Two robots facing each other.
The robots can smile, and also blush.

The robots smile and can even blush.

In the Swedish “Real Humans” television series, human-like robots called Hubots are common place. Hubots allow Lennart, who has dementia, to stay in his home and live an independent life. His hubots cook him healthy food, ensuring he does not eat too much lasagne. They clean his house and iron his clothes. They remind him when to take his medication. One even drives him to the shops. This science fictional scenario might seem far away but robots are already being trialled in Australian aged care homes with patients who have dementia. They are also being trialled in the homes of people with autism.

Who made the robots?

La Trobe University computer engineer Dr Rajiv Khosla is in charge of the trials. He works at the university’s Research Centre for Computers, Communication and Social Innovation. He wrote the software for the robots that are manufactured by NEC Japan. The seven robots are Sophie, Charles, Matilda, Lucy, Bobby, Betty and Jack. They are only 29 centimetres high and look a bit like a compact vacuum cleaner. Their heads rotate and their lips are an LED display, so they can smile and frown. They can also blush.

What do the robots do?

The robots sing, dance, play games and conduct quizzes. They read newspapers aloud and tell interactive stories, with all the sound effects. They can remind people of appointments and when to take medicines. The robot’s software allows them to be personalised with many activities to engage a particular individual. They are able to recognise up to 30 people.

Recognising human feelings

Dr Khosla’s software allows the robots to recognise how a person is feeling. When a robot is placed with a person, there is a period where the robot gets to know that person. The robot learns what the person’s normal responses are, so they get to know how a person is feeling and then react appropriately. For example, if the person’s heart rate is up and they look anxious, the robot might sing that person their favourite song or tell them a joke. Or it might email a friend of the person and ask them to call.

Robots for people with autism

A couple in Melbourne who have two adult children with autism have had a robot for over a year. Dr Khosla says, “the robot gives the mother space… it gives the mother respite from constantly engaging with her children”. The robot called Lucy never tires from engaging with them. She teaches them activities for daily living using repetitive quizzes. Lucy has helped to improve their vocabularies and hygiene habits, and they are more likely to do their chores.

Robots for people with dementia

A robot can help stimulate the memories of people with dementia by asking them if they remember a time in their life or a song. Dr Khosla says a robot helped an elderly German lady who stayed in her aged-care room and cried a lot. The robot played German folk songs and she started singing along with the robot. She now goes into the home’s common areas more regularly and cries much less. The robots can be bilingual.  

The robots can positively engage with people. Dr Khosla says “the positively engaged are more likely to cooperate and do things like take their medication”. Dr Khosla says that daily engagement with the robots makes people more likely to look after themselves.

The future

Dr Khosla says the robots can “play a role with most people with disabilities, especially those with mental health disabilities such as depression”. He says many people with disabilities are isolated from the world and the robots can help them establish social relationships. He imagines a future where his robots are common and communicate with each other on behalf of their owners. A robot could send a message to a robot belonging to a friend of their owners asking them to contact that owner. Or they could ask that person to pick up some milk for them. So the robots not only allow people to live more independent lives, they could also help build communities.


Readers comments (2)

Very interesting notion! It would be great if they could be implemented on a grander scale. No doubt will see more of these things. Aged care costs a lot of money, especially to pay someone to interact with dementia patients. Obviously a need for both, but could be a productive, cost saving tool. Be curious to see how these things pan out. I've no doubt some people would prefer a robot as company than people.

Thanks for your comment Anthony. My father had very bad dementia and basically needed his own full-time nurse when we put him in an aged-care home. I wonder if a robot singing the Carlton theme song or asking him questions about his childhood or teaching career might have distracted him or bought back lost memories, and helped him be more co-operative with the staff.

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