Robotics and Artificial intelligence experts in Edinburgh are working to make what they hope will be the first healthcare robots to hold a chat with more than one person at a time.
It is a plan designed to help older people, but it could one day be used to help control virus outbreaks like the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s not something we had actually deliberated while designing the project,” says Heriot-Watt’s professor of computer science Oliver Lemon.
“But as it turns out it’s relatively applicable to what’s going on today.
“You can visualize in the future that when you walk into a hospital waiting room, instead of meeting a human you come across a robot who’s able to help you.
“That kind of touch-free speech and hands-free interface is really going to be in more demand.”
The novel project, funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020, is named Socially Pertinent Robots in Gerontological Healthcare (SPRING).
Robots are presently working in some hospitals but are mostly limited to basic tasks such as patient records or shifting supplies.
You can also have a conversation with a digital helper like Siri or Alexa, but such conversations are typically short, simple and one-on-one.
SPRING will make new robots which can deal with numerous people in social circumstances.
‘Who can I assist?’
Prof Lemon says they will be able to identify that there are several people in a room and ask itself: “Is this person nervous, has this person been waiting for a lengthy time?
“Are these people actually talking to one another and I don’t need to bother them? Who can I assist?”
It will be able to handle the conversation by recognizing that the people have different roles – carer, parent, doctor, nurse.
The drive to build what are called socially assistive robots (SARs) is the first project to be publicized by the National Robotarium.
It is a partnership between Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt that plans to build a world-leading centre for AI and robotics.
Its new building is expected to open on the Heriot-Watt campus in 2021.
SPRING includes eight research institutions in Asia and Europe.
It will develop new research into computer vision, conversational AI, machine learning and human-robot interaction, together with sensorimotor robot control and human behaviour analysis.
The work builds on the achievement of Heriot-Watt’s Amazon Alexa Prize winning conversational AI system known as Alana.
A fresh spinout company called Alana AI is about to be introduced to emphasize on the next generation of conversational user interfaces.
The research shows conversational robots can be good for your health, reducing stress and loneliness and improving sociability and mood, said Prof Lemon.
“Social robot technology is of importance for elder care because robot company has the long-term potential to better attach people with each other,” he says.
“Social robots could increase both psychological well-being and the relationship between patients and hospital professionals.”
The National Robotarium’s other main research areas include power systems, manufacturing, agriculture technology, assisted living, and hazardous environments.
There is but one disadvantage, SPRING is a four-year project.
We can but hope the present pandemic has lessened long before then.
But Doctor Robot will see you finally.