Robots At Home

Robot cleaning home

Robots will take on a much wider and more significant role in home healthcare than in surgery. Giraff Plus is a European healthcare project aiming to combine social interaction and long-term monitoring to help people live independently. The Giraff is a home-resident robot specifically designed to take care of the elderly. The robot looks like a giraffe, with four wheels and a long neck with a camera and video display. It enables a caregiver to provide a remote online consultation with a person in his or her home and record the results in the person’s EHR.

Giraff Plus is a complex system that can monitor activities in the home using a network of sensors in and around the home as well as on the body. The sensors can measure blood pressure, weight, heart rate, and oxygenation of the blood. Sensors can tell if a refrigerator door has not opened or has remained open for a protracted time. Motion and activity sensors can detect if someone falls down. Different services, depending on the individual’s needs, can be pre-selected and tailored to the requirements of both the older adults and healthcare professionals. At the heart of the system is the Giraff, a unique telepresence robot that uses a Skype-like interface to allow caregivers or relatives to virtually visit an elderly person in the home from thousands of miles away. The video capabilities enable care providers to see and converse with the patient, providing him or her advice and answering questions.

Conventional wisdom points to a shortage of nurses in healthcare. The number of elderly is climbing and so is the number of retiring nurses. An even larger shortage may develop for home healthcare aides. The demand is growing since one percent of chronically ill patients consume 22% of healthcare expenditures. Elderly patients get shuttled back and forth to multiple providers often resulting in a poor quality of life for them and their families. Telehealth shows promise as a method to provide a larger share of the care in the patients’ home or residence, potentially reducing the demand for nurses and aides. 

In theory, robots could take on a much greater role in home healthcare. They also could also help people recovering from a stroke to re-learn how to perform basic functions. Therapists and aides can perform the task, but such therapy can be expensive and not pleasant to administer. Robots, on the other hand can work around the clock, and they never get bored with repetitive tasks. The question about robots is whether people will accept them and not be intimidated by them. A reason to be hopeful is that while the technology is gaining more and more capabilities, it is also becoming more human-like. Health attitudes will adapt and robots will become allies in our healthcare.

Researchers at the Personal Robots Group at MIT’s Media Lab have developed a robot with a baby face with a round head, small chin, and wide eyes that appears more capable of feeling than robots of other designs. The MIT Group found people prefer baby-faced robots for medical advice and for tasks that depend on emotion such as from a therapist. The research also showed child-faced robots are less likely to threaten the autonomy of elderly individuals. The Robot Group at MIT has built a robot named Nexi that exhibits many of the characteristics which may be critical to the long-term future of robots in healthcare.

Dr. Adam Waytz, Assistant Professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and Dr. Michael Norton, Professor at Harvard Business School have developed a list of five human-like characteristics they believe will be most important in the acceptance of robots. Faces and voices may be the most obvious. The ability to express empathy is a close third. More surprising but important characteristics Waytz and Norton believe will be important are the ability to provide mimicry and unpredictability. The latter two characteristics pique the interest of humans and result in more acceptance and trust. The reason is these two characteristics are more like humans.

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