dementia patient

Robots programmed to help dementia patients track down lost items

Image credit: Dreamstime

Robots could soon be used to help people with dementia locate their medicine, glasses, phones and other objects they need but have lost.

Engineers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have discovered a new way to program robots to assist specific groups of people depending on their needs. The technology could someday be used by anyone who has searched high and low for something they’ve misplaced.

“The long-term impact of this is really exciting,” said Dr Ali Ayub, a post-doctoral fellow in electrical and computer engineering. “A user can be involved not just with a companion robot but a personalised companion robot that can give them more independence.”

There is a rapidly rising number of people coping with dementia, a condition that restricts brain function, causing confusion, memory loss and disability. Last month, the Office for National Statistics revealed that dementia and Alzheimer’s disease were the leading cause of death in England in 2022. Collectively they accounted for 65,967 deaths (11.4 per cent of the total), up from 61,250 (10.4 per cent) in 2021.

Fetch, the robot used in the research

Fetch, the robot used in the research

Image credit: University of Waterloo

Many of the individuals suffering from the condition repeatedly forget the location of everyday objects, which diminishes their quality of life and places additional burdens on caregivers.

The engineers believe that a companion robot with an episodic memory of its own could be a game-changer in such situations. They succeeded in using artificial intelligence to create a new kind of artificial memory.

The research team began with a Fetch mobile manipulator robot, which has a camera for perceiving the world around it.

Next, using an object-detection algorithm, they programmed the robot to detect, track and keep a memory log of specific objects in its camera view through stored video. With the robot capable of distinguishing one object from another, it can record the time and date objects enter or leave its view.

Researchers then developed a graphical interface to enable users to choose objects they want to be tracked and, after typing the objects’ names, search for them on a smartphone app or computer. Once that happens, the robot can indicate when and where it last observed the specific object.

Tests have shown the system is highly accurate, and while some individuals with dementia might find the technology daunting Ayub said caregivers could readily use it.

In future, the team will conduct user studies with people without disabilities, then people with dementia.

A 2019 study found that virtual reality could be used to help dementia sufferers recall past memories and tackle behavioural issues.

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