National Robotarium project uses “socially pertinent robots” and MASA presence to reduce patient anxiety

[An ambitious project titled “Socially Pertinent Robots in Gerontological Healthcare” (SPRING) utilizes medium-as-social-actor presence to assist hospital and care patients, as described in this story from The Scotsman based on information from the National Robotarium research centre. For more about SPRING, including a 2:55 minute video, see the Heriot-Watt University website and also the PAL Robotics site, and for more about the National Robotarium and other research projects there see the Centre‘s page of the Heriot-Watt University site and coverage in E&T. –Matthew]

Three National Robotarium-linked projects which have the potential to changes lives

Robots are rising to a range of modern challenges, from talking to anxious hospital patients to ensuring social distancing is observed to reducing risks to life in hazardous industrial settings.

Promoted by Heriot-Watt University
26th August 2021

The National Robotarium, a world-leading centre for robotics and artificial intelligence research at Heriot-Watt University, is at the forefront of this work – and its facilities will be significantly enhanced when a new dedicated building for the centre opens on the university’s campus in Edinburgh next year.

The National Robotarium, a partnership between Heriot-Watt and the University of Edinburgh, is part of the Data-Driven Innovation initiative and supported by £21 million from the UK Government and £1.4m from the Scottish Government, through the £1.3 billion Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.

Its aims, explains Professor Yvan Petillot – co-academic lead of the National Robotarium at Heriot-Watt – are to promote entrepreneurship and encourage early-stage product development. He adds: “Working at the interface between academia and industry, the National Robotarium will translate world-class research into new products and markets for the benefit of the UK.

“It will be a major innovation hub, working across multiple sectors, offering staff and students the chance to co-create new products and businesses to support the net-zero and circular economy of the future.”


Could robots help reduce the anxiety of people waiting for a dementia diagnosis by having a conversation with them?

It’s a question roboticists hope to answer in a Europe-wide partnership that could revolutionise the way care is delivered.

A new humanoid robot recently arrived in Edinburgh as part of the SPRING project and Dr Christian Dondrup of the National Robotarium explains how it will be used: “When a patient goes to a hospital appointment, or has a series of appointments, there is a lot of waiting around, which can create anxiety. The first part of the SPRING project examines how robots might chat to patients in ‘non-medical phases’, when staff are busy and patients can be most anxious.

“The robot is programmed to chat about the news, Covid-19 advice or play a simple quiz with the patient.”

This is done by giving the robot – which is 1.6 metres tall (about 5ft, 3in) and runs on wheels – access to news sources such as Reuters and Wikipedia and the latest Covid-19 information.

“The robots will approach a patient in a waiting room, reassure them they’ve not been forgotten, check they have their documents and find them a chair. They will ask if they want a chat and to talk about non-medical topics to try to relieve anxiety. The robot’s conversational system is open domain, which means it tries to find a suitable response to whatever a person has said.”

The research team, including Heriot-Watt University and eight other universities across Europe, delivers its first project milestone in September, demonstrating that the robot can chat effectively to patients in a hospital-like environment.

Later, the robots will be used in Broca Hospital in Paris, a specialist dementia facility where patients can have several appointments in one day.

The conversational robot has been developed from a system created by Heriot-Watt PhD students for the Amazon Alexa Prize. “This was more like conversation with friends in a pub about TV shows and telling jokes,” says Dondrup.

“For medical settings, we developed a system that can also talk about current pandemic guidelines and even debunk myths. There is also a true-or-false Covid-19 quiz.

“After milestone one is achieved, we will look at multi-party robot interaction with several people and the robot involved,” says Dondrup. “It’s much more difficult as you have to read a range of social cues from more than one person.”

One later milestone in the four-year project is to examine how different patients react to the chatty robots. “When we do in-hospital trials, patients and their families will have agreed to take part, but we recognise this is a novel experience and people will react differently,” says Dondrup. “Our Italian partner is leading work to identify who wants to interact with the robot – no-one will be forced.”

There is long-term potential in care homes, although plans were delayed by the pandemic. Dondrup says: “In care homes, people might be more familiar with each other, so we might need different approaches to break the ice and get group conversations flowing, like quizzes and collaborative games, but it’s not too big a leap.”

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