Someone at Edge Hill University has a sense of humor. The university in England sent out a press release with this adorable photo (above) of its Robbie the Robot sitting in a chair in front of a television, remote in one “hand” and coffee mug in the other.
Robbie reportedly enjoys watching a particular soap opera. But his TV-watching habits are no laughing matter. You see, he’s watching that soap opera to learn how to recognize certain behaviors associated with dementia.
The British soap opera “Emmerdale,” researchers explain, includes a character with dementia named Ashley Thomas, and the United Kingdom’s Alzheimer’s Society has said the scenes that feature her offer a “realistic portrayal” of the disease. So Edge Hill investigators had Robbie watch more than 13 episodes featuring Ashley’s storyline. Well, technically, they broke those 35-minute episodes featuring Ashley into 65,082 images to teach Robbie how to recognize facial expressions and body language.
And it worked! Robbie, according to the researchers, now can spot signs of depression and aggressive behavior, as well as happiness and neutral behavior.
“Depression and aggressive behavior are often the most upsetting and challenging symptoms for those closest to the person living with the condition,” Ardhendu Behera, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in computer science, who led the project with three students, said in a statement. So researchers hope that robots like Robbie one day will be another way to help people living with Alzheimer’s and those who care for them.
“Currently, the only ways to monitor and manage dementia is by direct observation, which is labor-intensive, time-consuming and can be costly from a care perspective. Or there’s wearable bio-sensing devices,” Behera said.
Practically speaking, said Zachary Wharton, one of the three students working on the project, “The aim is for Robbie and robots like him to look for clues as to when the person might be beginning to show aggressive behavior and perhaps offer a distraction to help them calm down. It might be through playing music or showing a video, talking to them.”
And Robbie’s uses extend beyond the realm of Alzheimer’s, according to researchers. He can act as a companion to those of any age, keeping track of how many times someone has a drink, whether they’ve taken their medication and their level of activity.
“The potential use of robots is huge, as they can not only [help] with the daily routine of a sufferer for friends and family but could potentially intervene in situations to help,” Wharton said.
So don’t let Robbie’s cuteness be a distraction. He may have a very important role to play in the fight against Alzheimer’s as well as in the senior living industry’s goal of helping residents stay as healthy, independent and safe as possible as they age.