Devices & Technology

Nursebot: Personal Health Care Assistant of the Future?

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By Jennifer Larson, NurseZone feature writer

Imagine this scenario. You go to visit your elderly mother, who has been living in an independent retirement facility for a few years now. When you arrive, a robot is coaching your mother to take her blood pressure medicine. As you look on, the robot gently reminds your mother, who nods and dutifully swallows her prescribed pills. 

Could robots like this one be part of the future landscape of long term care? It’s anybody’s guess, but a multi-institutional team of researchers in Pittsburgh have said, “Why not?”

A few years ago, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh developed a robot they dubbed “Flo” after Florence Nightingale. Composed of people from nursing and computer science and rehabilitation science backgrounds, the team wanted to create a personal robotic assistant for elderly people living in the community who might need a little extra help. Jacqueline Dunbar-Jacob, Ph.D., RN, of the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing is a principal investigator on the project, along with other nursing school researchers at the university and researchers from the computer science and robotics department at Carnegie Mellon.

Additional researchers include Martha Pollock of the University of Michigan, Wolfram Burgard of the University of Freiburg, Germany, and Dieter Fox of the University of Washington.

According to the researchers, the goal of the Nursebot project is to provide more support, not to replace the nurses and nurses’ aides who do help out the elderly in assisted living facilities. Eventually the team received a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Today, the project is in its second year of this funding, having just received a $1.4 million grant. The newest robot was created about a year ago. Her name is Pearl, and she can navigate autonomously, unlike Flo, who was operated completely by remote control.

The researchers really do refer to the 4-foot-tall Pearl as a “her.” Indeed, Pearl has a robotic voice similar to a woman’s voice and a humanoid face, complete with eyes and mouth.

“People pretty quickly attribute some human characteristics to the robot,” said Judith T. Matthews, Ph.D., RN, a nursing school faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh and Nursebot project member.

Some of the responsibilities that researchers would like to ascribe to robots like Pearl include intelligent reminding, tele-presence, data collection and surveillance, mobile manipulation and social interaction.

“Human beings are very complex,” said Matthews. “This would have to be tailored to their needs.”

The intelligent reminding component of the robot reminds its owner to eat, drink water, take medicines, and go to the bathroom.  According to Matthews, the robot would also provide a platform for telemedicine; the patient’s doctor could use the robot to connect remotely with the patient. At the same time, the robot could collect information to supply to the health care practitioner.

Social interaction and mobile manipulation may be some of the biggest challenges. Pearl has a mapping capability that allows her to sketch out a map of the room in which she is placed, Matthews said.

Some of the Nursebot researchers have done some field testing with Pearl in a Pittsburgh-area retirement community. They asked the residents to provide feedback on the robot.  A group of residents gamely talked to the robot, answered questions, and accepted candy from a dish in the robot’s proferred “hand.”

So far, the feedback has been very positive, according to Matthews.

“There’s a novelty to it,” she said. “People can talk at dinner about how they talked to a robot.”

However, Pearl’s descendants will need more speech development.  The roboticists have discovered the robot’s limited vocabulary is one drawback, and a more extensive script might be more useful to the people using a robot.

Even if the Nursebot project is expanded, it would have a fairly limited application, Matthews said.

“We can imagine that this wouldn’t be for everyone,” she said.

Some people might need robotic assistance only for a short period of time. “It is the kind of thing that could be used over and over by more people…just like any other equipment,” Matthews said.

Obviously, there are and will be technological challenges to creating a workable Nursebot that could be used on a widespread basis, Matthews said.

For example, researchers are doing some testing to get information on people’s average walking speeds over certain distances. Also, Pollack is working on the robot’s reminding software, by inputting data gathered from older adults on their usual morning routines.

The Nursebot team plans to meet in late June to regroup, share information, and move forward.

“There are loads and loads of questions on how this would work best,” Matthews said. “But you have to start somewhere.”

June 1, 2002. © 2002. All Rights Reserved.

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