A study of older people’s attitudes towards robots is helping researchers at The University of Auckland to develop inexpensive robotic assistants for aged care.
With a rapidly ageing population placing an increased strain on the health and aged care sectors, the group aims to develop inexpensive robotic devices to help staff with menial tasks, and extend the amount of time older people can stay in their own homes.
“Robotic assistants could provide a range of benefits in healthcare as the population ages, but designers must first understand older people’s attitudes and expectations of robots before they can be accepted,” says Dr Bruce MacDonald, from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and head of the research group.
The study at Selwyn Retirement Village in Pt Chevalier gathered the opinions of residents, their families and staff on what tasks healthcare robots could perform, and what they should look like.
The results showed residents would most like robots to assist with detecting falls, calling for help, switching on and off appliances, cleaning, making phone calls to a doctor or nurse, lifting heavy things, monitoring the location of people, and reminders to take medications. Staff also rated tasks such as measuring vital signs, general reminders, and locking the house at night as useful for robotic assistants.
In terms of appearance, residents and staff preferred a middle-aged robot with a clear-voice, but there was no overall preference for a male or female robot. The robot should not be too human-like and some residents expressed a desire for no face. The most preferred design was a silver robot of 1.25m height, so it was not too imposing, with wheels and a screen on the body.
Some staff expressed concern during the study about robots taking away jobs. Dr MacDonald says this is a common concern when robots are introduced to the workplace, and explains that robotic assistants are intended to help alleviate a possible shortage of care staff, and should assist staff with more menial tasks. Tasks such as personal care, providing medical advice, and assessing sadness were not identified in the study as useful for robots to carry out, and human carers should continue to meet these needs.
The Rev Duncan Macdonald, CEO of The Selwyn Foundation which owns and manages Selwyn Village, says the Selwyn Foundation is noted for pioneering the use of new technologies in the care of older people.
“We aim to adopt the most innovative services possible, providing they deliver better quality care for our residents and are financially and operationally viable,” he says. "As the use of this type of assistive technology is in line with our philosophy of supporting residents to remain as independent as possible, we have been delighted to help The University of Auckland with such a groundbreaking project."
The researchers have now begun a trial of a Korean YUJIN robot at the retirement village, which will perform some of the tasks identified by the study including taking vital signs and giving reminders.
The three year HealthBots project operates in collaboration with Korea’s Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI). Seed funding was provided by UniServices, the University’s commercialisation arm, and ongoing funding is provided by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, as well as the Korean Government. It is anticipated the project will provide access to new high-value export markets for New Zealand.