UMD professor researching using social robots in assisted living facilities

Alejandra Palacios
Updated: November 19, 2020 10:41 PM
Created: November 19, 2020 04:49 PM

A UMD computer science professor and her students are working on addressing the issues of overwhelming work for frontline workers and isolation at assisted living facilities as a result of COVID-19 with the help of robots.

They are doing this with research on using social robots in dementia friendly living spaces.

"The elderly are very lonely these days because family members are not able to visit them or spend time with them. Even the caregivers are not able to approach them close but the robot can do that," said Arshia Khan, a UMD computer science professor and leader of the study.

That’s where the robots come in handy. Khan and her students are programming the robots to interact and monitor residents in nursing homes.

"The robots have emotion detection capabilities so they can detect where the patient's feelings are going and then relay that information," said Anna Martin, a UMD computer science graduate student helping with the study.

Martin said the robots are meant to comfort people and help them feel less alone by offering social interaction.

"Having to go into people's spaces and not have to worry about infection particularly for vulnerable populations can be very valuable," said Martin.

"We can sanitize the robot and send the robot off to interact and help communicate with people," said Khan.

Khan said the robots are also able to administer medication, track emotions, physiological changes like blood pressure and heart rate through a wearable sensor that residents will have on.

"It's more of a proactive approach than a reactive approach that we're taking because our sensors will track the person and with the data that we will be acquiring over a period of time we will know when the person is going to start wandering or if they're going to have any kind of episode," said Khan.

The robots also have the added perk of dancing and being a gossip bot.

"What we are trying to do is use the positive side of gossip. Say a person has certain habits, we will try to duplicate and create an imaginary person with that same personality with the robot. Then the robot will use that imaginary personality to encourage the person to be more active to interact and do their usual activities," said Khan.

The robots are able to relay information to clinicians and frontline workers. The project has gained national attention.

"The robot will know their activities because the robot will start assisting them as soon as they're diagnosed with dementia and learn and remind people of their behavior," said Khan.

They are also using smaller robots for a study on helping children with communication disorders. The robots have speech and facial recognition.

"The robot is a friendly nonjudgmental presence and it also I think gives the child a space to practice those interactions," said Martin.

Martin did her own study programming the smaller robots to be able to react to human emotion and express emotion with body movement and speech.

Khan emphasized that these robots are not meant to replace human caregivers but augment human care. She hopes this research makes a difference for the future of healthcare.

"We are hoping that the positive impact of the pandemic will be that people will be more open to robotics," said Khan.


Alejandra Palacios

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