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Collaboration to create affordable AI for the elderly

An unlikely collaboration between American toy manufacturer Hasbro and Brown University is aiming to benefit ageing populations across the globe with the creation of the ‘Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support’ (ARIES).

Artificial intelligence will be added to Hasbro's existing robotic companions, to enable them to help older people with basic daily tasks (Source: Brown University News)
Artificial intelligence will be added to Hasbro's existing robotic companions, to enable them to help older people with basic daily tasks (Source: Brown University News)

The three-year project and partnership, which has recently received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation in America, hopes to design a smart robotic companion capable of assisting people with simple but sometimes challenging tasks of everyday living.

Professor for Brown University’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, co-director of Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative (HCRI), Bertram Malle, says the project will add artificial intelligence capabilities to Hasbro’s current Joy for All Companion Pets - animatronic dogs and cats designed to provide interactive companionship, comfort and joy for older adults.

He adds that it is the teams goal to develop additional capabilities for the ARIES companions to help older adults with simple tasks that could include help in finding lost objects, medication reminders or other tasks that sometimes become challenging, especially for those who may have mild dementia.

“Hasbro did a great job developing a product that can provide comfort and joy for older people,” he explains.

“What we want to do now is leverage our expertise in cognitive and computer science to add capabilities to this robotic pet.

“Neither of us could do this on our own, but together we have the expertise to potentially develop something truly beneficial.”

Over the next three years, with the support of the funding, the group plans to perform a number of user studies to help understand how ARIES may best assist older adults.

Professor Malle says the studies will also enable a means of “effective communication” between the ARIES companion and users, while also helping the researchers to learn the kinds of tasks which a robotic companion might be helpful with.

“The Joy for All Companion Pet currently make some realistic pet sounds and gestures,” he says.

“We may want to expand those capacities and add intelligence to them, so the companions give meaningful clues - gestures, nudges, purrs - that help to guide users toward misplaced objects or let them know that it’s time to do something.”

He says the early user studies will play a “key role” in how the project unfolds.

“There are some things - like locating objects and taking medications - that we know from the literature people find useful, but in our first year we want to find out what other challenges people face that we don’t know about and then see if we can develop technologies to address them,” Professor Malle says.

Brown University Professor of Computer Science and co-principal investigator on the grant, Michael Littman, says cost of the project is “a critical factor” for researchers.

“The ‘A’ in ARIES stands for ‘affordable’, and that’s something we’re taking very seriously,” Professor Littman says.

“This is one of the important reasons Hasbro is a great industry partner for this project - the current Joy for All pets cost roughly $100 while similar robotic products can cost $5,000 to $6,000.

“We want the ARIES robot to be available to anyone who needs it.”

Professor Malle says ultimately, the team hopes to complete a prototype and test it with target users by the end of the three project years.

The researchers stress that the technology isn’t intended to take the place of human carers, but instead aims to compliment their work and help in small ways to meet the challenge presented by ageing populations.

“To us, this project rally represents what we do… which is to let societal needs drive technology development,” he says.

“We know that caring for an ageing population will be a tremendous challenge in the coming years, and we think technologies like ARIES could play a small but potentially important role in helping people meet that challenge.”

Australian aged care provider Royal Freemasons is one of many industry groups within Australia who utilises the current Artificial Intelligence (AI) animal - Paro the Robotic Seal, with Senior Manager Customer Experience, Funda Ozenc, experiencing first had the comfort, joy and comfort offered by the technology.

“Using technology as a platform to support resident engagement and reduce and or prevent social isolation, agitation and many other ailments is helpful,” he explains.

“The benefits for residents are therapeutic and social and the same could be said to care providers.

“It creates a social interaction between residents and caregivers that’s based on a joyful experience that makes everyone involved happy.

“We can see a marked improvement with social engagement from our residents with the introduction of Paro the Robotic Seal… residents are smiling, happy and engaged when interacting with Paro, the looks on their faces is pure joy, patting and talking to Paro.”

Having had such positive results with the AI seal, Mr Ozenc welcomes the advancement by Brown University and Hasbro.

“I am encouraged to continue to see AI developments to support older people,” he says.

“The work that Hasbro and Brown University are engaged in seems to be escalating and increasing the capability of AI pets to assist older people with daily tasks, this is tremendous in supporting older people to continue to maintain their independence.

“It’s a great initiative to support older people have meaningful and therapeutic engagement [and] companionship, which is very important to prevent social isolation.

“Pet bring joy to people in general and to have older people engage with pets in a safe and meaningful way is a great initiative.”

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