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Can robots improve elderly people’s life?

"You should not take your pill on an empty stomach!" In a futuristic elderly person's home this kind of advice could come from a robot. At ISTC the Planning and Scheduling Technology Laboratory (PST) is working to build artificial systems, which provide assistance services: robotics is therefore exploited for socially useful tasks. 

Demographic statistics show that European population is slowly getting older. The aging process has brought increased interest for new ways to effectively assist elderly people and grant them a high level of independence. This means preventing social isolation and promoting new tools to improve the quality of life of old and partially impaired people. The challenges entailed by this goal have lead to the development of the emerging field of Artificial Intelligence for Eldercare.

Working in this direction, the Planning and Scheduling Technology Laboratory (PST) aims at building cognitive support technology for domestic assistive services. One of the main results of this research is a prototypical intelligent home, the RoboCare Domestic Environment. It is a joint national project lasted from 2002 to 2007, in which PST actively participated as the coordinating entity.

RoboCare recreates a three-room flat where sensors, robots and other intelligent agents coordinate to support the daily activities of an elderly person. In this scenario a truly autonomous robot is able to monitor the daily schedule of an assisted person in his/her own apartment. A sophisticated obstacles-avoiding system allows a continuous and safe navigation of the robot in the environment: it can therefore autonomously maintain awareness of its position and reach any accessible destination.

Speech synthesis is used to verbalize suggestions, predicting and preventing possible hazardous behaviors. "You have already taken your pills!" Such a warning is generated as a reaction to unexpected behaviors of the assisted person: this is expressed in the form of temporal constraints among the activities. Constraint violations (repeating an already done action, delaying important activities) trigger the proper system's reaction.

The idea pursued with RoboCare is not to "replace" human caregivers, but to increase elderly people's independence. This is exactly the aim of another important project led by PST team: it is called ExCITE and its goal is to allow old people to remain in their home environments, enabling loved ones and caregivers to maintain a higher level of communication and interaction with them. The idea is simple but effective: a remote-controlled robot able to move within the home environment is endowed with a teleconferencing system which allows relatives, friends or caregivers to contact the assisted person. The challenge of ExCITE consists in moving laboratory experiments to real people life settings, thus exploring the ability of robots to reduce the sense of social isolation by bridging distance and facilitating interaction.

With RoboCare and ExCITE development PST has addressed one of the open challenges in AI, namely that of integrating intelligent skills to create a proactive assistant for everyday life.

Future steps will probably lead to the application of robotic platforms not only in domestic environments, but also in medical structures. 

Contact: Amedeo Cesta

ISTC Group: Planning and Scheduling Technology Laboratory