Already widely used in task-based factory work, robots are now being developed with social and emotional intelligence for service in healthcare capacities as support for sick children and the elderly. By Michele Tydd.

Robots in healthcare

Roboticist Professor Mary-Anne Williams in her lab.
Roboticist Professor Mary-Anne Williams in her lab.
Credit: SHANE LO

Professor Mary-Anne Williams can trace her career trajectory as one of Australia’s leading roboticists to the formation of an unusual soccer team in the early 2000s. The four players all came from the same background and cost the University of Newcastle a bundle.

For Williams, then an artificial intelligence researcher and software engineer in the university’s business and law faculty, it was a way to get her hands on Sony AIBO robots to run her belief revision algorithms. But to make it happen, it was conditional she and the robots compete in Japan’s RoboCup in 2002.

“We programmed the robots to believe they were playing soccer by giving them the rules and the ability to find, chase and kick the ball. It was a simple system but when the first robot came ‘alive’ it was super exciting, even transforming,” Williams recalls.

Williams now heads the University of Technology Sydney’s social robotics hub known as The Magic Lab, which, like a handful of other teams in Australia, is programming a new generation of robots she predicts will play an increasing role in health and aged care.

And to stay at the cutting edge Williams regularly returns to RoboCup, as she will later this month for its 20th anniversary in Nagoya. She and her crack team of PhD students have been chosen to represent Australia in the home social robot league with a sleek competitor known as Pepper.

The team has fitted Pepper, a SoftBank-built robot, with sophisticated artificial intelligence software that enables it to analyse and respond to human expression and voice, to navigate and map new environments, and to sense and recognise objects and faces enabling it to adapt to a range of scenarios.

“Most robots in Australia are task-based in factories, doing things like welding cars or being guided by surgeons in delicate operations,” says Williams. “And they don’t adapt very well to change of task. If, say, a robot working on car production drops its spanner, it will likely repeat the task over and over again minus the spanner if there is no human intervention.”

Social robots differ in that as well as the ability to perform a range of tasks they also have emotional and social intelligence. That self-awareness allows them to interact and co-operate with humans.

Williams says social robots will be living closely with people and will do so more successfully if they have this self-awareness.

“It will allow them to help humans but also to be able to ask a human for help where necessary to complete a task. It would be capable of managing your online grocery shopping but it might need to ask a human to help open the fridge door when the food arrives.”

Williams says social robots can also be programmed to recognise and respond to emotions in humans such as sadness or fear.

These combined features, she says, position them well for healthcare roles in aged care and hospitals to supplement support and companionship needs.

“We’re actually talking to a number of hospitals and we have a particular interest in children because we think there is a huge unmet need that social robots could fill to improve their hospital experience, particularly for long stays,” says Williams.

Some major children’s hospitals throughout Australia, including The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, have begun experimenting with social robots in limited roles.

Medical device company ikkiworks has partnered with The Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Sydney to trial a companion robot for up to 20 oncology patients next year.

The prototype, known as ikki, is specifically designed for four- to eight-year-olds undergoing acute lymphoblastic leukaemia treatment that can last up to two years.

Ikkiworks founder and technology director Clive McFarland says the advice provided by clinicians was to design a robot that could address a number of stresses children often suffer in this situation.

“After the shock of diagnosis they are sucked into the medical machine and their lives are turned upside down,” he says.

“They are shuffled between home, hospital and some form of schooling so ikki was designed to give them back a sense of control and empowerment.”

A talking penguin-shaped robot, ikki can entertain with downloaded games and stories. It is portable and will belong to the children, so it can go home with them for the duration of their treatment.

It alerts the child and the parents when medication is due, and if the child is getting a life-threatening temperature. Doctors will be able to connect to ikki to download the relevant clinical information it gathers.

Another targeted area of need is the elderly, both at home and in aged-care facilities. A number of studies, mainly undertaken in Japan, show companion and assistive robots are helping to alleviate loneliness and isolation among seniors.

They, too, are being trialled in this sector on a small scale in Australia.

“I think an elderly person might find working with a Pepper robot a lot easier than a mobile phone, even if the robot just sat there and did nothing but make eye contact and listen,” says Williams.

“Robots have endless patience and can listen to people’s stories over and over again. They can also fetch and carry so they can enable the elderly to stay in their homes longer if they wish.”

Council on the Ageing Australia (COTA) chief executive Ian Yates supports the concept, but with a sense of caution.

He says a number of countries, including Australia, will soon witness a shortage of supply in caregivers to meet the demands of an ageing population.

“Smart assistive technologies have an increasingly important role to play in allowing older Australians to maintain their independence and their health, whether this be in an aged-care facility, a retirement village or at home.

“While technologies such as social robots are likely to provide an additional option for some older Australians, they are no substitute for effective and qualified staff and volunteers. There isn’t an algorithm in the world that can emulate the transformative power of a friendly face and human touch.”

As to affordability of introducing social robots on a large scale, Mary-Anne Williams says that is improving as well. “The current generation of robots are about $20,000 each but five years ago equivalent technology was more like half a million dollars. In the next few years these robots will become increasingly affordable, eventually around the $1000 mark.

“We know from other technologies that the $1000 mark is a threshold, and if you can make a technology that improves your human experience under that then people tend to adopt it en masse.”

As she prepares for another RoboCup tournament Williams explains there is much more to it than winning. Japan’s commitment to life-enriching technology remains a constant inspiration and she is aware that Australia is playing catch-up.

“The writer William Ford Gibson famously said, ‘The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed’ … We need to get started,” she says.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 15, 2017 as "Interacting roles".

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Michele Tydd is an Illawarra-based freelance journalist.

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