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    10/17/2000 - Tuesday - Page C 12

    These 'nursebots' are being designed to monitor elderly clients - even remind them to take their medicine

    PITTSBURGH SOMETIME IN THE next few months, if all goes well, a sleek-headed robot on wheels named Pearl will be placed with several elderly Pittsburgh residents to start testing the idea that machines can help keep people on their own and out of a nursing home.

    The robot, being developed jointly by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, is designed to provide the chronically ill elderly with an automated companion to carry their dishes and other household items, remind them when to take medications, monitor their movements for signs of falls or other mishaps, and provide a two-way video link to outside caregivers.

    The nursebot, as it is called, has been under development for about a year at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. Sebastian Thrun, an assistant professor of computer science who heads the project, said the use of robots as helpmates for the elderly makes sense.

    "There are all kinds of technological things we have accepted very nicely because it adds some benefit to our lives," Thrun said. Cell phones, computers, microwave ovens, automobiles-the list goes on.

    "If the robot is able to keep someone out of the nursing home," he said, "I wouldn't see why a person would rather go into dependency" instead of opting for the robot.

    Still, he acknowledged that the elderly often are uncomfortable with new technologies. Researchers have been studying how people interact with robots and how their presence can be made more appealing. Studies suggest that people respond better to robots that have an identifiable "face." "It draws their attention to the robot because there is something human-like about the robot," said Mike Montemerlo, a Carnegie Mellon graduate student who is working on the nursebot project.

    A nursebot prototype called Flo, after the nurse Florence Nightingale, had rubbery "Mick Jagger" lips that could smile or frown. But the head of the prototype, used now to test equipment and new ideas, was rather skeletal. Pearl has a smooth, iridescent metallic look and a more expressive face, thanks to eyes with lids that open and close, eyebrows that tilt up and down and a mouth consisting of an array of light-emitting diodes. The robot can nod or shake its head and its circular "ears" twirl slowly when it is "thinking." So Pearl looks approachable and a bit quirky, something the robot designers hope will make it less intimidating to elderly patients. Physical appearances aside, the real test of the robot will be its ability to make life easier for those it serves.

    "Part of the thought behind the robot is to delay nursing home care," said Jacqueline Dunbar-Jacob, head of the department of health and community systems for the University of Pittsburgh's School of Nursing. "We're certainly not thinking about substituting the robot for the supervision and care that someone needs by an individual." The nursebot project recently won a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Institutional review boards are expected to give approval soon for limited testing with humans.

    Dunbar-Jacob, who is helping to develop the protocols for the robot, said the initial testing will be done with healthy older adults and is intended primarily to see how people respond to the robot rather than to assess its capabilities as a personal assistant.

    According to Thrun, the robot would be placed for several weeks in the home of an elderly person in Pittsburgh who lives alone. It also would be tested for several weeks in the common room of an independent living facility, where several elderly people live together without the need for constant nursing care. The researchers are eager to see how well the robot performs and how humans interact with it.

    Initially, Pearl will be controlled by a handler using a laptop computer, either on the scene or via an electronic linkup, Montemerlo said. The goal, however, is to develop an autonomous helpmate that would perform its household tasks without constant outside monitoring or intervention. Would the person to whom the robot is assigned have control over malfunctions or wayward movements? "We could put a red button on top of the robot or some way to shut it down," Montemerlo said.

    Thrun called the nursebot project a "high risk, high gain" effort that, if successful, could lead to robotic personal assistants for the elderly within a decade.

    As the Baby Boom generation ages, he said, there is expected to be a shortage of caregivers for the elderly. If robotic personal assistants can take up some of the slack, Thrun said, it could prove attractive economically for health insurers as an alternative to early institutional care. He said the cost might be on the order of $10,000 a year per robot. Nursing home care cost about $56,000 a year on average in 1998, according to one study.

    Engineers and computer specialists already have come up with some devices to assist the sick and elderly, including "intelligent" walkers developed in Ireland that can help a person move about. The self-propelled walkers are designed to avoid walls or other objects and, if the person is forgetful, serve as a gentle guide to a particular destination such as the dining room. In Japan, engineers have developed fur-covered robotic animals that remind their elderly owners when to take their medication or do other tasks.

    But Pearl is envisioned as a more ambitious step toward use of robots to improve the quality of life and self-sufficiency of elderly people living alone. According to Thrun, the robot is being designed for three uses initially: Intelligent reminding. Many elderly patients, while in reasonably good health, are forgetful about taking their medications or doing other routine tasks around the house. The nursebot will be taught the layout of the home and will have the capacity to follow a person from room to room, using a low-power laser range finder (about the size of a coffee maker) to avoid bumping into walls and furniture. By voice and visual displays on a video screen on its chest, Pearl will issue reminders to its human companion when it is time to take pills, drink fluids, check in with the doctor or do other tasks.

    Surveillance. The robot "sees" via small TV cameras in its eyes. It can track motion and scan the room for evidence of trouble. The robot eventually will be designed to learn and remember a person's daily routine. If something seems amiss or the human is not responding, the robot would be programed to send an alert to a health care provider or hospital. The robot also could be equipped with instruments to monitor the person's vital signs and recognize worrying symptoms, such as an irregular heartbeat.

    Tele-presence. The robot can be used as a video phone, providing an interactive Internet link between the homebound person and caregivers or medical personnel elsewhere. They could check in with the person, via the robot's camera monitor, to discuss any medical concerns or problems.

    Pearl is powered by batteries and has two onboard Pentium-class computers.

    Voice-recognition software will allow it to interact with humans, Montemerlo said. The robot is programed to respond to simple questions such as "Pearl, what time is it?" or "Pearl, what is on TV?" Pearl will respond both by voice and by visual display of information on its video screen.

    The researchers are working on ways to make the robot's electronically synthesized voice sound more natural, Dunbar-Jacob said.

    While the robot would not converse with humans in any meaningful way, the researchers said, even a few simple sentences could provide a type of surrogate social contact for an elderly person living alone. Montemerlo said the robot could be programed to make some inferences. If the robot reminds a person to keep a doctor's appointment, he said, it may also check the weather forecast and suggest that the person take an umbrella.

    Robot assistants also may serve eventually as mediators to the outside world, Montemerlo said, helping an elderly person sort through information on the Internet or serving as host for a video chess game with a friend living elsewhere.

    Thrun said a commercially viable nursebot could be available within six to eight years. Dunbar-Jacob said the prospect of automated assistants has been generally well received by nurses who have been told about the project. "They find it exciting," she said. "They say, 'I want one when I get older.'"

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