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Staff of the future?

Aged care could see its first robots within the next few years.

The same robot technology that guides massive machines around Australian mine sites could be delivering cups of tea in aged-care homes within a decade, a robotics expert says.

Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte says the era of the robotic “healthcare assistant” was closer than many people thought, and innovation in mining and agriculture sectors was driving the technology.

Pointing to massive autonomous drill rigs and driverless haul trucks now being used on mine sites in Australia’s Pilbara, Durrant-Whyte says it’s a matter of time and scale.

“We’ve got robotic systems that we can put on a $2 million haul truck or a $100,000 tractor,” says Durrant-Whyte, who is research director at Sydney University’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics.

“Soon we’ll put them on a $10,000 item like a car; then it will be put on a $1000 item in your home.”
Hospitals and aged care facilities were where Australians would see “a lot more robotics more immediately”, he says.

Existing and emerging technologies could produce robots able to monitor patients, help carers with labour-intensive tasks like lifting, and even provide entertainment for the ill and infirm.

“You’d like it to be able to recognise expressions, to have enough knowledge to think that person is asking for a drink,” Durrant-Whyte says.

“Then it must be able to navigate down the hall to someone without, obviously, running over the patient. In effect the robot will have some subjective understanding of what the people it is working with want and need.

“And that’s definitely coming – I wouldn’t say there are prototypes, but certainly there are deployable examples – and the sort of healthcare assistant I’m talking about is within a decade.”

Robots in the home already exist, as global sales of automated and self-guiding vacuum cleaners have topped 2.5 million.

As these types of technologies improved, Durrant-Whyte says, robots should follow other recent developments which started out as niche products but quickly became ubiquitous.

“If you take yourself back 20 years, you wouldn’t have had a mobile phone or the internet, and now everyone is surprised when you don’t have one,” he says.

Elsewhere, a group of Australian researchers are refining Japanese robots which can understand human emotions through the person’s facial expressions, and integrate them with other forms of communication, such as speech, for use in health, aged and disability care.

Japanese electronic giant NEC has funded Dr Rajiv Khosla and a La Trobe University team to work with Kyoto University on developing emotional intelligence in the robot known as Papero.

Khosla hopes that within three to five years, robots such as Papero will be helping nurses in hospitals, working with carers in retirement villages and acting as on-call housemaids to elderly people in their homes and advising on their health care.

Although the Japanese researchers have designed robots that can communicate with humans, the machines do not possess the ability to understand human emotions and respond accordingly. This is where the La Trobe team comes in. They are developing what Dr Khosla calls “emotionally intelligent dialogue systems”.

“The health-care robot we are designing can understand human emotions through the person’s facial expressions and integrate them with other forms of communication, such as speech, just as we do in speaking with others,” he says.

“The robot does not just pick up the verbal signals but also tracks the visual responses with its camera so it can communicate in an emotionally intelligent manner.”

Khosla is aware that cultural differences can affect facial and verbal responses.

“This is part of the reason the Japanese have asked us to develop Papero to respond to mainstream Australian emotions, as they have tested it only in Japanese nursing homes.”

Meanwhile, New Zealand researchers have tested a Korean- funded, low-cost robot in a nursing home environment, and are confident it can cut the costs of staff care in facilities and help people stay at home longer.

Dr Elizabeth Broadbent, a researcher in the University of Auckland’s Centre for Health Robotics, is working on the robot which can perform simple tasks in an aged care setting.

It is close to commercial development with South Korea’s Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute.

Her research on psychological aspects of human-robot interaction aims to keep older people at home longer and help nursing staff with duties that could be effectively managed by a robot.

Broadbent’s research has checked people’s preconceptions of robots, and how this influenced their reactions (and their blood pressure levels) when it was a robot doing the measuring. The research showed the blood pressure levels generally remained about the same.

She has also conducted research at Selwyn Care Retirement Villages in Auckland to discover how the staff and residents would like a robot to look, and what they think it would be useful for. With AAP

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