Amid a growing shortfall of qualified nurses in the U.K., students and professors at Imperial College London are developing a robot with dexterous 3D-printed fingers to assist the elderly or physically-challenged.
A modified version of a robot nicknamed Baxter, the machine has two mechanical arms, an animated face, as well as sensors to help it analyze patterns and detect if a human user is struggling to lift or move a limb.
“There’s an increasing need for technologies that will allow people to maintain their independence, and through that, satisfy their fundamental human desire for privacy and dignity,” Yiannis Demiris, the director of the personal robotic laboratory at Imperial, said in an interview.
Baxter was first built in 2011 by a U.S. startup, and has since become one of the main research robots used by universities helping grad students learn about robotics. It has undergone trials to help aid workers in Africa to working on factory conveyor belts.
Imperial’s version aims to improve the machine’s ability to read motions and builds the skills it has so it can complete tasks such as dressing. The scientists are also 3D printing “fingers,” increasing its dexterous capabilities.
Baxter analyzes movements it observes over time, allowing medical professionals to see if the person using the robot is suffering changes in their mobility. If you’re struggling to put on a shirt, for instance, Baxter will adjust its own position and help you get dressed.
Demiris said AI is necessary for robotic assistants to learn about the preferences and abilities of those they help, “so as to personalize their assistance and maximize its benefits.”
The Imperial researchers saw a need for creating a version of Baxter after looking at nursing shortage statistics paired with aging population demographics.
For the year ended March 31, a little over 10% of available nursing positions within Britain’s National Health Service were vacant, according to data compiled and published by the NHS.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is grappling with its own nursing shortage and a report by Health Affairs predicts it’ll intensify amid immigration policy discussion; more than a quarter of direct care nurses weren’t born in the states.
Japan has already introduced robotic care for the elderly. SoftBank Robotics has a humanoid named Pepper, which is being used in Silver Wing Social Welfare Corp. nursing homes in Tokyo. The country is facing declining birth rates and growing life expectancy has also made the population increasingly elderly, with more than 27% aged 65 or older, according to the Statistics Bureau of Japan.
California’s Intuition Robotics has also created a robotic companion called ElliQ to help older people combat loneliness.
The robot at Imperial is in the research phase and no commercial trial has yet been agreed. Demiris said a prototype is being tested to ensure it’s entirely safe for humans. Engineers are also further developing the 3D-printed fingers so Baxter can complete fiddly tasks.
But while development continues, those who work with the elderly feel it will be a long time, if ever, that robots can completely replace nurses.
“There are lots of ways in which technology can enhance care and make it more efficient, but for now and possibly forever there’s no substitute for the human touch when it comes to personal care,” said Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age U.K., a British welfare group for the elderly.
“Maybe in the future technology will evolve to the point at which ‘robots’ are able to provide for many of our needs, including personal care,” she added, “but we don’t see it happening very soon.”