Could a robot keep grandma company? UBC IDEA lab experiments with AI for elder care

The proportion of the Canadian working-class population within 10 years of retirement reached a record high of 21.8 per cent as of 2021. A rapidly growing senior population and shrinking working class doubly impacts staff shortages in the healthcare industry and long-term care homes (LTCs).

One potential solution: Robots.

UBC’s Innovation in Dementia and Aging (IDEA) Lab, led by Dr. Lilian Hung, is researching the use of robots to support elders’ independence, safety and well-being.

One of the lab’s recent robot projects, in collaboration with researchers in Hong Kong and Singapore, explores how social LOVOTs can alleviate boredom and engage seniors in LTCs.

Short for “love robots,” the LOVOTs Kiwi and Mango arrived at UBC from Japan in July 2023, and have since visited several care homes, conferences and Vancouver General Hospital.

LOVOTs act as low-maintenance pet substitutes, making cooing noises and even laughter when tickled. This aims to provide comfort and engagement for seniors, who often experience loneliness and isolation.

IDEA is also testing Aether, a collaborative service robot being developed by the Developmental Disabilities Association and JDQ Systems Inc., in LTCs.

In addition to social interaction, Aether can independently navigate a care home environment, flagging hazards along the way.

If Aether’s built-in camera detects a person on the floor, it will verbally flag down a nearby nurse. Other hazards, like spills, are detected via liquid sensors at the bottom of the robot.

Aether can engage in natural conversations, recognize residents’ faces, ask for their names and tell jokes. Built-in Alexa technology converts the speaker’s speech to text, which is processed by ChatGPT 4.0, and the response is sent to Alexa to convert to speech.

Patients with dementia can also ask Aether for medication or appointment reminders.

Two seniors hold their LOVOTS.
Two seniors hold their LOVOTS. Courtesy Lillian Hung

October 2023 culminated phase one of the Aether project: observing reactions and gathering feedback from seniors, nurses and students via focus groups.

Staff, naturally, brought up the concern that Aether would “replace” them. According to Albin Soni, an undergraduate research assistant at the IDEA lab, the technology isn’t quite there yet in terms of emotional nuance and practical ability.

“[Aether]’s still a long way from being able to independently become a nurse,” said Soni. “Right now it’s meant to assist nurses [and] staff in care homes.”

The next two phases of the project are engaging families, frontline staff and people with disabilities in Aether’s deployment to evaluate whether it’s helping those who it’s meant to.

Just as seniors continue to benefit and depend on human support, young people can benefit from engaging with elders too.

“If you’re a student I highly recommend you participate in some senior outreach activities,” said Soni. “Seniors have a lot of stories to tell; they’ve experienced life in a completely different way than we have, and you don’t realize it until you sit down and have a conversation.”