New socially assistive robot is vital step in healthspan improvement

As the world’s population ages, new technology is proving vital – both physically and mentally.

Stevie is a wonder – and he just called to say he can help you (sorry, sometimes we can’t help ourselves). In this case, Stevie is Stevie II, Ireland’s first socially assistive robot, designed to be used in long-term care facilities and with the aim of being able to support independent living at home for the elderly in the future.

Longevity.Technology: There will be a real need for affordable independent-living assistance, yet investing in assistive robot technology has been problematic in the past. The technology is highly complex, and when you consider the integration of disparate technologies like navigation, voice recognition, battery technology and sensory feedback we do wonder if one-off research projects will ever scale?

The TRL score for this Longevity.Technology domain is currently set at: ‘Technology has completed initial trials and demonstrates preliminary safety data.’

The TRL score for the technology addressed in this article is: “Late proof of concept demonstrated in real-life conditions.”

Well, researchers at Trinity College, Dublin have improved on their 2017 model Stevie by improving its mobility and dexterity. They have also developed its advanced sensing technologies, including rangefinders that work using lasers and cameras that judge depth. Stevie II also boasts tactile, vision and inertial sensors to detect its surroundings and interact with them. The researchers have improved the robot’s artificial intelligence capabilities with a series of onboard computers as well as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for communication with outside data sources.

Mindful of Stevie II’s role in interacting with people, the Trinity team have also given it more enhanced expressive capabilities. Lead researcher on the project, Dr Conor McGinn, said: “We found from interviews and focus groups that seniors enjoyed interacting with Stevie. It being so expressive helped to humanise the technology in a way that surpassed our expectations.” Dr McGinn added that they believed Stevie would be capable of performing a variety of assistive tasks as well as interfacing with existing technologies like “video calling, smart sensors, social media – that can be inaccessible to many older adults.” [1]

The Trinity team were able to pack a lot of innovation and experience into Stevie II; they consulted with nurses and care home employees, as well as residents of care homes and elderly people who still lived in their own homes. Experts consulted included ALONE, an Irish charity that supports the elderly at home, providing the support and technology for them to be able to live independently and also remain connected socially [2] – which is, of course, a key component of wellness.

The Trinity researchers also used worldwide experts, partnering with the US-based Army Distaff Foundation, the organisation which runs Knollwood Retirement Community for armed forces veterans. Staff and residents of Knollwood have been testing aspects of Stevie II’s technology and Associate Executive Director, Matt Reilly said the research was promising and that Knollwood hoped to incorporate the technology into their care delivery, improving outcomes for their residents [3].

The world’s population is aging; in 2017, 13% of the global population – an estimated 962 million – were aged 60 or over. This number is set to rise to 1.4 billion in 2030 and 2.1 billion in 2050; statisticians think it could rise to 3.1 billion in 2100 [4]. As lifespan increases, the pressure on healthspan providers will increase accordingly.

Image: University of Plymouth