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Regional News - Friday, October 27, 2000

CMU, Pitt developing 'nursebot'

By James Zambroski

The Jetsons had a mechanical maid named Rosie. Luke Skywalker's sidekick was the gold-plated C3PO. Five years from now, Grandma and Grandpa might rely on a robot nurse named Pearl.

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland have been given a $1.4 million National Science Foundation grant to develop a robot to help the elderly live at home and avoid going to nursing homes.

The robot will monitor medications, alert help if someone falls and provide an electronic link to a caregiver using the Internet and video conferencing.

Testing of the "nursebot" is set to begin at an assisted living facility in Oakland within a year, said Jacqueline Dunbar-Jacob, professor of nursing at Pitt.

Dunbar-Jacob said the devices could be in homes within five years if research shows the best use of the robots is monitoring and communication. If the machines perform more sophisticated work - such as recording vital signs - government approval could take longer, she said.

Sebastian Thrun, assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, said the 4-foot-high, 75-pound motorized robot named Pearl will cost between $3,000 and $5,000 when mass produced.

The prototype in his CMU lab cost about $40,000 because it was built by hand. He said factoring in software development costs push the total to more than $1 million.

Thrun said that as a roboticist, he was looking to build a machine to help people. The elderly are naturals for such assistance, he said.

"This is basic computer science. How computers interact with people. Technology has helped people live longer, but not much thought has gone into the quality" of advanced age, Thrun said.

Initially, Pearl - named for the color of its plastic and metal exterior - will monitor daily living of its human masters and remind them about basic chores, including when to take medication.

Problems with medication, such as when they are to be taken and in what amount, are a chief reason people require assisted living and nursing home care, Thrun said.

"People are forced into early retirement or have preventable medical emergencies" because of errors in taking medicine, he said.

The robot will also "see" where people are in a home and determine how long they sit in a chair or how long it takes them to get up.

It will be able to tell how long a stove has been in use or whether water has been left running, Thrun said.

The third goal of initial research is to provide an electronic link between patient and caregiver, like a video telephone that moves and uses the Internet, he said.

While the robot is equipped with two cameras disguised as eyes, motion and location will be monitored by an invisible light broadcast from the base of the machine. The beam works like sonar bouncing against legs and feet of the residents.

Pitt's nursing school is gathering data to include in software development, Dunbar-Jacobs said. A team will observe patients interacting with nurses to determine functions the machine should accomplish.

The robot will be able to recognize some voice commands, but perfecting that function will be a challenge for the scientists because garbled speech and hearing impairments sometimes afflict the elderly, Thrun said.

Much of the initial research will be geared toward determining how well accepted the machine is by its owner.

Thrun said aging baby boomers are more likely to accept the device since they are familiar with computers.

"Replacing human contact (with a machine) is an awful idea. But some people have no contact (with caregivers) at all. If the choice is going to a nursing home or staying at home with a robot, we think people will choose the robot."

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