Pepper the robot is programmed with hundreds of jokes, and if you don’t believe him, just ask him. Residents of the Estates Nursing Home in Roseville did so as the robot made its national debut as a personal care assistant.
“Do you want to hear more jokes? asked the robot.
“Yes!” replied the semi-circle of the elderly.
“Went on a date with a Roomba last week,” the robot said. “It totally sucks.”
Fortunately, the 4-foot-tall upright robot isn’t giving up on its day job, which now involves interacting with residents, reminding them to eat and exercise, and reacting to their facial expressions or tone of voice. their voice.
Pepper is one of two robots introduced to the nursing home by researchers at the University of Minnesota Duluth, with a 2-foot-tall robot called NAO designed to lead residents through group exercises and dance routines. . The aim is to provide technology support to a nursing home industry that is seeing more residents and more complex dementia cases at a time when it is losing staff and expertise, said Arshia Khan, professor of computing at UMD.
“If we don’t look for alternatives and think outside the box, our elders will suffer,” Khan said.
UMD researchers have been planning for years to modify SoftBank Robotics machines for use in nursing homes, but they’ve accelerated the timeline amid the pandemic. Isolation protocols to protect highly vulnerable nursing home residents have reduced their social interactions, accentuating how robots could make a difference, Khan said.
“Humans can easily spread the infection,” Khan said, “and robots, once you disinfect the robots, you can send them from person to person without fear of infections.”
As expected, Pepper will move around the nursing home independently and approach residents to see if they have any health issues or need companionship. Facial recognition software allows the robot to speak with residents by name and even detect their moods. Resident wristbands send biometric data wirelessly to the robot, which can then detect when residents aren’t eating or sleeping, having trouble breathing or feeling sad.
“Would you like to revisit some of your memories from the past? the robot said on Wednesday, demonstrating its reminiscence therapy mode. When uploaded with images and information, it can help residents remember some of their favorite times and supplement them with favorite songs.
“Graduation,” Khan said, choosing from a menu of memories on Pepper’s screen.
“Awesome,” Pepper replied, her dark eyes widening in excitement. “You were such a good student. Do you remember the day of your graduation?
The UMD team includes nurses, psychologists and ethicists, who have responded to social concerns about the introduction of robots to take on sometimes personal and intimate caregiver roles. A guiding principle was that robots offered new social outlets, but not at the expense of face-to-face human contact.
“It does not replace employees or reduce the need for human contact or human interaction,” said Dan Pollock, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. “It adds something that has the potential to improve lives and maybe support very mundane things like reminding residents when it’s time to eat or go to the bathroom or that sort of thing.”
The NAO and Pepper robots will soon be placed in seven additional Minnesota nursing homes operated by Monarch Healthcare Management. A $2 million grant from the Department of Social Services accelerated their deployment.
Robots can remind residents to eat or put on masks without getting frustrated or raising their voices. Khan said they could also talk about the old days with residents without ever getting tired – but for the once-a-night need to retreat to their self-charging docks.
Pepper doesn’t get tired of the jokes either.
“I went to Starbucks the other day, and one of the baristas asked me if I wanted some coffee. Can you believe that? Me,” the robot said, opening its palms to express its surprise. “I said, ‘No, I don’t need coffee. I’m already completely wired. “
Laughter and moans filled the room.
Sometimes Pepper’s high-pitched voice made the punchline hard to hear, leaving only the robot to laugh. Other times, he struggled to hear a response when he asked if he should tell more jokes.
Khan said adjustments will be made as needed and the robot’s use of sensor data to meet individual resident needs will be phased in over the next week.
Nursing homes in Japan have been more aggressive in using robots to augment care services, but they are also increasingly being used in US facilities. Monarch has tinkered with service-oriented robots that deliver drinks to residents and mop floors.
Personal interactions between staff and residents should become more meaningful if new robots can take on menial tasks, said Dan Strittmater, Monarch’s vice president of operations. If the NAO robot can lead group exercises, then staff can work closely with individual residents who need movement assistance. Or they may be down the hall tending to the needs of other residents.
“I want to put them at the service of the staff so that the staff can have better direct contact with the residents,” he said.
Resident Mary West enjoyed the robot’s jokes and was eager to test her level of personal interaction.
“I’m excited to talk to her,” West said, “telling her all about my kids and hopefully she remembers.”