Researchers adding AI, medication reminders to companion robots for seniors

By Dave Muoio
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Brown University researchers have announced a partnership with Hasbro to add medication reminders, basic artificial intelligence, and other capabilities to the toymaker’s Joy for All Companion Pets, a collection of animatronic cats and dogs intended to relieve loneliness and improve mental health among older adults.

The Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support (ARIES) project looks to assist older adults who have mild dementia or may otherwise be in need of daily reminders. The three-year project is supported by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, and will include researchers from Brown’s Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative (HCRI), Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School, and the University of Cincinnati.

"Hasbro did a great job developing a product that can provide comfort and joy for older people," Bertram Malle, professor, co-director of HCRI, and the principal investigator on the grant, said in a statement. "What we want to do now is leverage our expertise in cognitive and computer science to add capabilities to this robotic pet."

Loneliness and isolation is a growing focus for digital health, as depression can amplify mental health conditions and lead to worse outcomes overall. At last month’s Connected Health Conference in Boston, Ted Fischer, vice president of business development at Hasbro, said that since launch his company has heard from users and market groups that the product line has had a positive impact on the wellbeing of both seniors and their caregivers.

“We went out to senior homes and communities whoever would have us and asked ‘Is this a valid concept?’” Ted Fischer, vice president of business development at Hasbro, explained during a panel. “The foundational insight we gained was this need for interactive companionship to combat social isolation and loneliness.”

After an initial period of research to identify user needs, the team will develop and embed an AI into the companion robots to assist with tasks.

"There are some things — like locating objects and taking medications — that we know from the literature people find useful," he said. "But in our first year we want to find out what other challenges people face that we don't know about, and then see if we can develop technologies to address them.”

Other challenges of the program will include the design of new sensors for the animatronic animals, and communicative purrs, growls, or gestures that can guide an older adult toward their medication, lost object, or other object of interest. The team hopes to have a completed prototype after three years ready to comfort and assist lonely seniors.

"To us, this project really represents what we do at HCRI, which is to let societal needs drive technology development," Malle said. "We know that caring for an aging population will be a tremendous challenge in the coming years, and we think technologies like ARIES could play a small but potentially important role in helping people meet that challenge."