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,"
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
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
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.'"