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Don't worry about grandma being home alone; Flo the robot is taking care of her. Flo is a next generation 'nurse-bot' that assists sick or elderly people in their daily lives. 'She' can remind her owner when to take medicine and even help with getting the bottle open. Flo keeps an eye on the patient's vital signs and lets the doctor know if anything's of concern. Best of all, Flo is a great companion who stops her housebound charge from getting lonely.

Flo is an early prototype Personal Service Robot (PSR) developed by a team from various faculties of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Sadly, the nurse-bot is not quite up to the standards described in the opening of this story…yet.

Robots designed to care for the sick and elderly have been around for some time now but most are basically little more than mobile tables. Flo's creators are seeking to go beyond that stage and develop a PSR that takes an active part in the health care of the patient.

"Flo is unique in the range of tools being developed to assist the elderly." Says Sebastian Thrun, assistant professor at CMU's Center for Automated Learning and Discovery. "It's a personal assistant as opposed to an intelligent wheelchair or smart walking aid."

The research project hopes to generate PSR's that will be capable of caring for elderly people in a number of ways:

  • Intelligent Reminding: Many elderly patients have to give up independent living because they become dangerously absent-minded. They forget to take medicine, to eat, drink, or to see the doctor. The project explores the effectiveness of a robotic reminder, which, because it follows people around, can't get lost or left behind.
  • Mobile manipulation: Arthritis is the main reason for the elderly having to give up independent living. A robot like Flo could help an arthritic person with tricky tasks like opening pill bottles or the microwave.
  • Tele-presence: Professional care-givers can use the robot to establish a "tele-presence" and interact directly with remote patients through a monitor/camera interface. Currently, many medical visits are superfluous, being just regular appointments or to reassure a worried patient. Flo is a platform for tele-presence technology that connects patients with care-givers through the Next Generation Internet (NGI).
  • Data collection and surveillance: A range of emergency conditions can be avoided with systematic data collection (e.g., certain types of heart failures). A PSR could monitor the vital signs of its charge and be programmed to recognise worrying symptoms. Health authorities could be alerted automatically and probably long before the situation becomes critical.
  • Social interaction: A huge number of elderly people are forced to live alone, deprived of social contacts. Can a robot overcome this need for companionship?

The socialising ability of a robot is probably the most challenging aspect of the project. It may be difficult for a machine to win acceptance amongst a generation of people who often feel uncomfortable with and threatened by technology. Research is being done at a number of other institutions around the world on what sort of appearance elderly people prefer their mechanical minders to have. Providing a welcoming tactile façade, such as soft fur, seems to be important.
Some sort of interactivity is also vital. A patient needs to feel that the robot displays almost human qualities of response and emotion. Flo has an animated face which, although it wouldn't win a beauty contest, provides the nurse-bot with a limited range of facial expressions. Sophisticated tracking software keeps the face aligned with the patient and more importantly, enables Flo to follow the subject from room to room.
The era of a robot like Flo in the home of every elderly person may be some time away, but it certainly won't be too long. It is only very recently that robotics engineers have been able to produce systems with the necessary robustness, reliability and capability that a PSR would need. The talents of such machinery will inevitably evolve exponentially over the next decade.

Most importantly, the development of autonomous care systems will be driven by the fact that all of the world's developed nations have populations becoming increasingly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of their elderly citizens. The need for cost-effective methods of health care for this demographic should ensure the future of Flo's offshoots.

Photo courtesy of CMU Center for Automated Learning and Discovery.

Related stories:

Millenial Medicine

Related links:

The Nurse-bot site at CMU.

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