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Robots as complement to human assistance

2015-08-26

Having a robot as support and companionship at home is no longer a distant thought. Today, a robot named “Hobbit” can be found at Ella Lundstöm’s home. She is 89 years old and the first person in Sweden to experience what it’s like to have a technological roommate. Researchers at the Department of Design Sciences at Lund University’s Faculty of Engineering are studying how it works for Ella to share her everyday life with a robot.

“I’m surprised by the robot and everything it can do. It’s an inspiring aid that stimulates me to be more active,” Ms. Lundström explains.

Hobbit is a social robot that serves as support, companionship and as a communication tool with an alarm function. It has been developed in an EU project, the aim of which is to enable older people to go on living in their homes longer than they can today. Because the population is increasing and people are living longer, we also need to find new ways of caring for our aging population. Robots can be one of the solutions.

“In the future, robots can be a complement to other home care services so that an older person can continue to live at home and feel safe and independent,” says Susanne Frennert, doctoral candidate. Her research focus is on user-centered design and technology in the social context. She is one of the prime movers behind the robot project.

Ms. Frennert will be studying the Hobbit robot during the coming months in ten different test homes. Before moving in, the robot needs to be adapted to its new home. The floorplan of the house needs to programmed into the robot for it to learn to find its way around and to recognize common objects.

The robot can help with practical things like fetching medications or a cup of coffee, looking for glasses or picking up the keys from the floor. It also does rounds periodically and sends an alarm if it finds the resident lying on the floor or if something else deviates from the usual routines. But it is not meant to replace human contact.

“It’s important to remember that the robot is a complement to the support from other people. The hope is that people can see the value of technology instead of experiencing it as a threat to other kinds of help,” explains Ms. Frennert.

Ms. Lundström views the robot primarily as an asset that offers her new possibilities. But she would not like the robot to be too human-like.

“It’s so positive and feels like real company. But I would not be pleased if it had feelings or would want to control. It would be demanding like a dog or cat. As it is now, Hobbit is a really fun aid and all its possibilities are fascinating,” she relates.

In spite of her 89 years, Ms. Lundström doesn’t describe herself as someone who needs help or support at home. She doesn’t have home help services but is instead able to manage most things on her own. She bikes, takes a yoga class and travels a lot. The weeks with Hobbit are, for her part, primarily a social experience.

“I’m not very dependent on help,” she says to explain why she doesn’t need to utilize so many of Hobbit’s support functions. “But playing games with a robot is nothing to sneeze at. At my age it’s important to get new inspiration in life and that’s what I’ve really received,” she says.

During the summer, Hobbit will move on to be studied in new homes and the experiences of the older people involved in living with a robot will help to shape the future of robots.

“There are great opportunities with robots, but we need even more research on how they should be designed to realize older people’s wishes and needs,” Ms. Frennert sums it up.

Text: Jessika Sellergren
Translation: Eileen Deaner
Photo: Dennis Ersöz

Background facts

Hobbit – The Mutual Care Robot is a research project in the European Union’s 7th Framework Programme. Its aim is to develop a socially assistive robot that helps seniors and old people at home. The project partners include: Lund University’s Faculty of Engineering (Department of Design Sciences), Technische Universität Wien, FORTH (Foundation for Research & Technology – Hellas) on Crete, the Academy for Aging Research at HB in Vienna, and the companies Hella Automation GmbH and MetraLabs GmbH. The results of the studies in older people’s homes will be the basis for further development of the robot.

Link: hobbit.acin.tuwien.ac.at/index.html

  

For more information, please contact Susanne Frennert, doctoral candidate, Dept. of Design Sciences, Lund University’s Faculty of Engineering, +46 703-87 68 38  susanne.frennert@certec.lth.se


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