Meet Nadine, the robot who can one day help seniors

Prof Nadia Thalmann (right) with her AI robot Nadine, who is being developed to be a social robot to accompany the elderly. Photo: Prof Nadia Thalmann

She looks like a human, talks like a human and even emotes like a human. But make no mistake – Nadine, the receptionist at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is a robot, albeit the most human-like robot the world has seen to date.

The brainchild of Swiss-Canadian computer graphics scientist Professor Nadia Thalmann, Nadine is a social robot that’s still “very much in development”.

As the university’s receptionist, Nadine meets and greets visitors, smiles, makes eye contact with them and shakes their hand. If it’s someone she has met before, she’d not just recognise them but strike up a conversation based on past memories.

At the moment however, Nadine is a sitting robot. She isn’t mobile and her capacity to remember and emote has to be developed further before she is ready to be rolled out into the market.

Nadine is being developed to be a social robot, as companion to the elderly or children with special needs, says Prof Thalmann who is the director of the Institute for Media Innovation at NTU. Isolation, she points out, is one of the major issues faced by the elderly. While a social robot cannot (and should not) replace family or friends, the reality is that many old people, particularly those in nursing care or retirement homes, spend days on end alone.

The professor relates a personal experience.

“In the last two years of her life, my mother was in a nursing home in Switzerland. It was a very good nursing home ... it wasn’t cheap and the facilities were very good. But every time I visited her, I noticed that most of the time my mother and the other old people in the home would be on their own, sitting in their rooms or the hall staring into space.

Prof Nadia Thallman with her AI robot Nadine, who is being developed to be a social robot to be a companion to the elderly.
Prof Nadia Thallman with her AI robot Nadine, who is being developed to be a social robot to be a companion to the elderly.

“The caregivers perform their duties but when they’ve finished their jobs, the elderly residents are on their own. The caregivers were not companions. I felt really sad seeing this. With a social robot like Nadine, at least they’d have some companionship. After all, sometimes all they want is to talk to someone and the social robot can listen and respond like a real companion does. It cannot replace humans, of course, but it is definitely better than nothing.

"The reality is many of us are miles away and cannot be there for our elderly all the time,” says the professor who is also the founder and head of MIRAlab Research Laboratory at the University of Geneva. She has been working on Nadine for three years.

Nadine is the result of cross-discplinary research at NTU, involving various faculties such as engineering, computer science, linguistics and psychology with the purpose of creating a virtual human from being a computer programme into a walking, talking physical being that can observe and interact with humans.

The progress on Nadine has been invigorating for Prof Thalmann but she reckons that it will be at least another 10 years before Nadine – who incidentally looks like a younger version of her creator – is completely developed and ready for consumer use.

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“She takes after me because I need a basis for comparison to see how real she is, how far she has come and how ready she is. There is still a lot more work to do before she can be a social companion but we are on our way. And it is very exciting,” explains Prof Thalmann.

The application of robotic technologies in aged care is one of the solutions countries are seriously looking at in dealing with their increasingly ageing population. In Malaysia, demographic data indicates that we’d be an ageing population by 2030 – when those aged 60 and above will make up more than 15% of our population.

Concerns about the lack of support services for the elderly are already a rising concern and the government is taking notice. The Women, Family and Community Development ministry has set up a special task force chaired by deputy minister Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun to address the measures the country needs to take to prepare for the changing demographic.

As Malaysia’s population ages, support services for the elderly has become a crucial concern. Photo: Reuters

Japan – currently the world’s oldest population where one in four Japanese is 65 or older – is aggressively looking for solutions to keep themselves and their aged citizens happy, healthy and active.

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe allocated some 2.39bil yen (RM96mil) in 2013 for the country’s engineers and computer scientists to develop robots that can help with care of the elderly and to assist them in their lives, shares Prof Yukio Honda who is the director of the Robotics and Design Centre at the Osaka Institute of Technology in Japan.

“Population ageing is a problem all over the world. Actually, ageing itself isn’t a bad thing. But we need to come up with solutions for better ageing. Robots are becoming increasingly popular throughout Japan. Robot technology – including artificial intelligence robots like Nadine, will surely spread into every field eventually. At the moment, we need robots that can assist the elderly in carrying out daily tasks. The aim is to enable the elderly to enjoy an active and good quality of life ... with the help of robot technology,” says Prof Honda.

Both Prof Honda and Prof Thalmann were recently in Kuala Lumpur for the International Social Security Conference organised by the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) recently. Themed Active Ageing: Live Long and Prosper, the two-day conference discussed strategies to enhance the quality of life among the elderly.

“The elderly possess skills and experience. These are great assets to our society and we must utilise them. Many elderly people want to contribute to society and we are beginning to see this in Japan where more and more older people want to continue working. With robotic technology, we can help them do simple tasks that may be difficult because of age. They still make the decisions but are aided by technology. This way, they have so much to live for,” says Prof Honda.

Some elderly survivors of Japan’s March earthquake and tsunami find comfort in the small robotic seal named Paro. Photo: Reuters

One of the everyday robot-assisted devices that are currently being used in Japan is the walking-assist robot that looks like a sleek walker with robotic technology that can help push an elderly person who has to walk uphill, for example and brake automatically when going downhill.

“These are quite inexpensive ... maybe about US$200 (RM806) to buy or about US$8 (RM32) a month to rent. In Japan, we have government support so it is even cheaper,” says Prof Honda.

Some of the innovations that are coming out of Japan, says Prof Honda, will also ease the burden on caregivers who look after the elderly.

“Often, because they fear accidents and falls, many care facilities in Japan don’t encourage the elderly residents to walk about. They just sit in wheelchairs. This isn’t good. We want our elderly to be independent and age with dignity. At the same time, we recognise that the work of a caregiver isn’t easy. It’s intense and exhausting, which is where robotics comes in. Just as how the invention of automobiles has enhanced our life, robotics can enhance the life of the elderly,” he explains.

To illustrate his point, Prof Honda cited an electric nursing bed that transforms into a electric reclining wheelchair, so caregivers no longer need to lift patients out of their beds and onto their wheelchairs. This device will ease the strain of caregiving.

“I’m an optimist. (While it may be expensive now), I believe that the cost of service robots will go down dramatically in the near future. As technology evolves, these products will become more affordable,” he says.

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