Juola helps program robot to serve elderly

'Nao' can help people stay in homes, replace caregivers

The 2-foot-tall humanoid machine looks like something out of “The Jetsons.” But this home-based robot isn’t part of a cartoonish future.

According to a KU researcher, within five years, “Nao” — a robot manufactured in France by Aldebaran Robotics — could replace human caregivers in the homes of older people.

James Juola, professor of psychology, is part of a team reprogramming the robot to be more responsive to the elderly. He said that a rapidly aging population in the developed world requires a technological solution to the booming demand for in-home care.

“Demographics are really what spurred this project,” said Juola. “In western nations and parts of Asia, the aging population is increasing enormously. We have a much larger percentage of the population aged 65 or older — and about half the population over 85 is showing signs of dementia. At the same time, the proportion of people available to provide the needed services and economic resources to support the elderly population is declining.”

Juola, who splits his time between KU and the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, is a lead investigator in the Knowledgeable Service Robots for the Aging project, dubbed K-SERA. The European Commission supports the work, which aims to customize robots to serve aging people.

“It’ll have to track and follow the human and be available to it,” Juola said. “It’s being trained to recognize a certain individual and be constantly on-hand as an aide to communication — to remind the person of things they need to do, like take their medicine or have a drink of water — and also as an immediate link to medical personnel or family members in case the user needs assistance.”

Indeed, monitoring its human partner will be one of the most important tasks for the K-SERA robot; linked with infrared sensors in the home and video cameras, the robot will know if a person’s behavior is abnormal.

“In some cases, the robot will initiate conversations,” said Juola. “If a person does anything unusual — like oversleep, or stay too long in the bathroom or fall down — then the robot will be attentive to these unusual aspects of a person’s behavior. The robot will form inquiries and, if necessary, interventions to call attention to the fact that that person is having a problem.”

For now, Juola and his fellow researchers are programming the K-SERA robot to avoid obstacles around the home, recognize a person’s gaze and conform to the kind of societal norms that people might expect from their fellow human beings.

“People don’t like robots to be in their face,” Juola said. “There’s actually an acceptable social distance both for communicating with people and for robots. For detecting gaze, if you’re looking at the robot then the robot should know that and return the gaze. If you’re looking at something else the robot tries to figure out what you’re looking at by interpreting the direction of your gaze.”

Within a year, the K-SERA robot will be put into service in test environments such as nursing homes and hospitals. Ultimately, the technology could improve life in a cost-effective way for millions of aging people around the world.

“This robot off-the-shelf costs about $25,000,” Juola said. “But a year in a nursing home costs about $50,000. If this assistant could be readily programmed and could help people stay in their homes for even a year longer, it could provide an economic and social solution to part of a very large problem.”


Campus closeup
Kevin Liu, associate director, Confucius Institute

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