Love circuits: can robots care?

Robots are polishing up their micro-processors ready to march on aged care. But can they ever replace the human touch? Find out at a forum this Friday.

Above: Associate Professor Rajiv Khosla and aged care robot Matilda (image: La Trobe University).

By Stephen Easton

Scientists and industry stakeholders from around the world are coming to the Australian Museum in Sydney this Friday to share their knowledge and expertise in the use of assistive technologies in aged care, with a particular focus on robotics.

Ageing – The Future Technology Challenge is broken up into four sessions, including one that aims to answer the question, ‘Can we replace the human touch with robots?’

Associate Professor Rajiv Khosla from La Trobe University will introduce a robot named Matilda who, along with her ‘brother’ Jackson, was developed in partnership with NEC Australia for use in aged care facilities.  

According to NEC Australia’s Executive General Manager, John Norton, the small, cute but highly intelligent prototype robots had shown early signs of success when trialled at an aged care facility in Queensland.

“It wasn’t long – within a day or so – before the residents weren’t concerned with them being around, and were interacting with them and really enjoying it,” Mr Norton said.

“The software that gets loaded into these robots uses advanced biometrics to identify signs of stress. They have face recognition so they can talk to people, can stream applications like the news and link to a carer through video conferencing, and for people with dementia they can ask if you have taken your medications.

“Broadband is an essential part, but it’s a journey and we won’t have the NBN (National Broadband Network) commissioned and ubiquitous until next year.”

Tim Wallace, General Manager of Research and Innovation for the South Australian branch of Alzheimer’s Australia, will share his experience of investigating how simpler, cheaper robots that are already available can help people with dementia.

“We stumbled across Paro – the robotic seal – and we’ve been using it for a couple of years, primarily as a teaching aid to talk about some things on the horizon, but also to see how people react to these things as well,” Mr Wallace said.

“People do respond to it fairly well – not all people, but a lot actually see it as a baby seal, or it gives them the same effect, the same sort of reaction. It’s like laughter therapy – even if you don’t feel like laughing you get some of the same effect.”

Mr Wallace said advanced robots were only being made in small numbers for research purposes, and that he thought they would never quite replace the human touch.

“I think it’s a kind of ‘on the horizon’ thing. Certainly our current experience says we can’t completely replace the human touch, but we can complement it – and not for all people in all situations.”

Futurist and author Mark Pesce will chair a panel at the end of proceedings, debating the financial, ethical, technical and legal issues surrounding the use robots to assist in the provision of care.

Health and ageing consultant Sue Macri, also an associate commissioner on the Productivity Commission’s Caring for Older Australians enquiry, will act as facilitator of the forum, which is sponsored by Australian medical technology company Simavita.

The opening keynote address will be given by Joan Kelly, director of well-being and innovation at health insurance company Humana, before three industry stakeholders come together in a session called ‘Setting the Platform’.

These speakers will include Adam Powick from Deloitte Australia to outline the business case, Dianne Adamson, CEO of consulting firm Adamson and Associates, to advise on implementation and Allan Turner from West Australian community care provider Silverchain, who already use high-tech devices to support their clients.

Tags: aged, aged-care, ageing, ageing-the-future-technology-challenge, alzheimers-australia, alzheimers-australia-south-australia, australian-museum, broadband, john-norton, nbn, nec-australia, paro, robot-carers, robots, robots-in-aged-care, simavita-forum, technology, telehealth, tim-wallace,

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