WATERLOO, Ontario — Anyone can misplace their phone, wallet, or keys from time to time, but older individuals diagnosed with a form of dementia are especially likely to lose track of their essential household items. Now, engineers at the University of Waterloo have developed an innovative new way to program robots to specifically help people with cognitive decline locate lost items like medicine, eyeglasses, and phones.
While the initial focus of this project was on assisting a specific group of people (those with dementia), researchers note this new technology could certainly someday help anyone who has searched seemingly everywhere for something they’ve misplaced.
“The long-term impact of this is really exciting,” says Dr. Ali Ayub, a post-doctoral fellow in electrical and computer engineering, in a university release. “A user can be involved not just with a companion robot but a personalized companion robot that can give them more independence.”
Researchers say they were surprised by the rapid rise of dementia cases in recent times, an awful condition which interferes and diminishes brain function, leading to confusion, memory loss, and disability. Many people diagnosed with dementia frequently forget the location of everyday objects, ultimately lowering their quality of life and placing an additional burden on caregivers.
A robot built to remember for you
Study authors theorized that a robot with an episodic memory of its own could be incredibly helpful in such scenarios. The engineers were successful in using artificial intelligence to create a new kind of “artificial memory.”
They started with a Fetch mobile manipulator robot, which includes a camera for perceiving the world around it. Next, using an object-detection algorithm, the team programmed the robot to detect, track, and maintain a memory log of specific items within its camera view through stored video. Since the robot is even capable of distinguishing one object from another, it can record the time and date an item enters or leaves its view.
From there, researchers put together a graphical interface, making it possible for human users to choose which objects they want the machine to track. All users have to do is type in an object’s name to search for it on a smartphone app or computer. Once they do that, the robot will display when and where it last spotted the specific object.
Test runs have shown the robot is highly accurate. While some people diagnosed with dementia may find the technology intimidating, Ayub believes caregivers should have no problems using it. Moving forward, researchers plan on conducting user studies with people without disabilities, before including people with dementia.
This research was presented at the recent 2023 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction.
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