Robotic Companion for Seniors Could Reduce Loneliness
For many older people, particularly those who have lost a spouse or partner, living alone can be a daunting task.In addition to sometimes needing assistance being able to safely run their appliances, take their medication and conduct everyday household tasks, seniors also often face loneliness and boredom, equally important problems that are not usually addressed.
Service Robotics, a startup company founded by CEO Rob Parkes and COO Tim Morgan, has developed Genie Connect, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to give seniors a robotic companion that will play audio and video based on the users personal preferences, keep track of the required day-to-day tasks like turning on the porch lights at night, and connect the person to the outside world.
“What it does it takes a series of data points about your likes and your dislikes and your routines and it uses that to offer content that is personalized to you, both audio and video, [as well as] simple things like medication reminders and calendar activities in general,” Parkes said in an exclusive interview with R&D Magazine.
The robot has several features, including voice-enabled chats where the robot can answer questions, and play music and videos on request, provide direct video calling with family, friends and a central care representative, and remind users of appointments and medications. However, what sets Genie Connect apart from other voice-activated technologies is that it uses AI to learn about the user and personalizes some of the features.
The technology learns a person’s likes and dislikes and provide content that will be relevant for the person, helping to keep them active and engaged to stave off loneliness. It will also connects the person to other users with similar interests, whether it be television programs, knitting or yoga.
According to Parkes, users begin with a multi-hour meeting that will allow the technology to get a basic reading of their personality, hobbies and dislikes. He also said family members can be included in the initial meeting and important information such as birthdays can be implemented into the system. The AI-enabled robot will continue to learn about the user as they use it and update the personalization aspect.
Genie Connect is also connected to a care center that will connect the user with someone through a video chat that is familiar with the person’s situation and can help them with whatever they may need help with at any given time.
While the robot is designed to be placed in a centralized location like a living room and remain stationary, it can move if needed. This allows concerned family members to connect to the robot with a companion smartphone application and scan the dwelling to make sure the senior is not in distress.
The team originally received funding for the Genie Connect last August 2018 to help them write the software and coding for the project. Beginning in August 2019, they will begin conducting a three-month pilot trial of the project in the U.K. and possibly one other European country.
Parkes explained that the pilot technology will initially include a scaled down version of the Genie Connect, which focuses strictly on the combating loneliness. However, plans are in place for future iterations of the technology to be integrated with smart appliances and personalized health wearables. The researchers said they are currently seeking phase II funding to further the technology.
“We are at the beginning of a long journey with a lot of exciting things,” Parkes said, adding that they are also planning a pilot to use the technology with people in higher dependency care environments like retirement and nursing homes.
Parkes explained that the idea sprout up from personal experiences.
“We came together a little more than two years ago with the idea that we can use robotics for the benefit of ordinary people,” Parkes said. “We’ve been promised robots since the 1960s in some way so we decided that with our knowledge of the landscape of telecoms and technology that now is the time and that all it would really take is a focused approach on a specific application. So we decided to look at companion robots for older adults because we both have older relatives that live alone who are struggling to make that transition into a new phase of life, never having to live alone in their life.”
One of the features Parkes wanted to implement in the robot is that it must use technology that the majority of seniors who do not have extensive experience using technology will be able to use.
“We worked very hard to build AI capabilities that allows them to react with the robot just through voice interaction,” he said. “So everything you can do with Genie Connect you can do with a voice command.
“There is a huge barrier to entry in the older adult and senior market because this isn’t a generation that has grown up with technology,” Parkes added. “There are a lot of solutions out there that basically if you don’t have a smart phone you can’t use them or even if you don’t need a smart phone they do require some sort of confidence or low-level technology awareness.”
The current plan is to have Genie Connect be a subscription-based service, with a price point currently set for 49 pounds ($63.92 USD) per month.