Undated handout photo issued by Heriot-Watt University of what is believed to be the world's first multi-user conservation robot for healthcare

‘World’s first’ multi-user healthcare robot being developed in Scotland

Image credit: Matt Davis/Heriot-Watt University

Artificial intelligence experts in Scotland are working on what is believed to be the world’s first multi-user conversational robot designed for the healthcare sector.

The 'SPRING' (Socially Pertinent Robots In Gerontological Healthcare) project at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, is part of a multimillion-pound collaboration involving teams from eight European and Asian institutions. It is the first research project to be announced by the National Robotarium – due to open at the university’s campus in 2021 and which will develop socially assistive robots (SARs).

Working with existing robots such as the iCub (pictured above), the research will develop the technology to perform multi-person interactions and open social conversation in a healthcare setting for the first time.

“Research shows that the careful use of robots in group settings can have a positive impact on health, such as decreased stress and loneliness, and improved mood and sociability,” said Professor Oliver Lemon at the university. “Healthcare practitioners have been supportive of the use of robots during the non-medical phases of time in hospital, because social robots can help explain complex concepts to patients with limited medical knowledge.

Lemon has also expressed the importance of robots in improving one’s mental health. “Social robot technology is of interest for elder care, because robot companionship has the long-term potential to better connect people with each other,” he explained. “Social robots could improve both psychological well-being and the relationship between patients and hospital professionals.”

How the National Robotarium at Heriot-Watt will look

How the National Robotarium at Heriot-Watt will look

Image credit: Matt Davis/Heriot-Watt University

The research at its new ‘Robotarium’ (artist's impression pictured above) will focus on supporting elderly patients by combining scientific findings and technological developments. It will then help the robots understand various individual and group situations to make appropriate decisions, such as identifying patients who have been waiting alone for a long time or who might be anxious.

“While overcoming the limitations of current social robots raises numerous scientific and technological challenges, it has the potential to create tremendous social impact and economic value," Lemon said.

“The National Robotarium’s focus on creating societal benefits is ideally aligned to addressing such challenges. This type of technology is touch-free and hands-free so will be in great demand in the future as it will reduce the risk and spread of infection.”

In relation to social robots in the current health crisis, a Belgian robotics firm has lent a fleet of robots to elderly care homes to help residents keep in contact with loved ones after the government banned visitors to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

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