A Canadian project to introduce robots like Pepper into clinical settings (aside: can seniors’ facilities be far behind?) is the subject of a June 23, 2017 news item on phys.org,
McMaster and Ryerson universities today announced the Smart Robots for Health Communication project, a joint research initiative designed to introduce social robotics and artificial intelligence into clinical health care.
A June 22, 2017 McMaster University news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,
With the help of Softbank’s humanoid robot Pepper and IBM Bluemix Watson Cognitive Services, the researchers will study health information exchange through a state-of-the-art human-robot interaction system. The project is a collaboration between David Harris Smith, professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University, Frauke Zeller, professor in the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson University and Hermenio Lima, a dermatologist and professor of medicine at McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine. His main research interests are in the area of immunodermatology and technology applied to human health.
The research project involves the development and analysis of physical and virtual human-robot interactions, and has the capability to improve healthcare outcomes by helping healthcare professionals better understand patients’ behaviour.
Zeller and Harris Smith have previously worked together on hitchBOT, the friendly hitchhiking robot that travelled across Canada and has since found its new home in the [Canada] Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.
“Pepper will help us highlight some very important aspects and motives of human behaviour and communication,” said Zeller.
Designed to be used in professional environments, Pepper is a humanoid robot that can interact with people, ‘read’ emotions, learn, move and adapt to its environment, and even recharge on its own. Pepper is able to perform facial recognition and develop individualized relationships when it interacts with people.
Lima, the clinic director, said: “We are excited to have the opportunity to potentially transform patient engagement in a clinical setting, and ultimately improve healthcare outcomes by adapting to clients’ communications needs.”
At Ryerson, Pepper was funded by the Co-lab in the Faculty of Communication and Design. FCAD’s Co-lab provides strategic leadership, technological support and acquisitions of technologies that are shaping the future of communications.
“This partnership is a testament to the collaborative nature of innovation,” said dean of FCAD, Charles Falzon. “I’m thrilled to support this multidisciplinary project that pushes the boundaries of research, and allows our faculty and students to find uses for emerging tech inside and outside the classroom.”
“This project exemplifies the value that research in the Humanities can bring to the wider world, in this case building understanding and enhancing communications in critical settings such as health care,” says McMaster’s Dean of Humanities, Ken Cruikshank.
The integration of IBM Watson cognitive computing services with the state-of-the-art social robot Pepper, offers a rich source of research potential for the projects at Ryerson and McMaster. This integration is also supported by IBM Canada and [Southern Ontario Smart Computing Innovation Platform] SOSCIP by providing the project access to high performance research computing resources and staff in Ontario.
“We see this as the initiation of an ongoing collaborative university and industry research program to develop and test applications of embodied AI, a research program that is well-positioned to integrate and apply emerging improvements in machine learning and social robotics innovations,” said Harris Smith.
I just went to a presentation at the facility where my mother lives and it was all about delivering more individualized and better care for residents. Given that most seniors in British Columbia care facilities do not receive the number of service hours per resident recommended by the province due to funding issues, it seemed a well-meaning initiative offered in the face of daunting odds against success. Now with this news, I wonder what impact ‘Pepper’ might ultimately have on seniors and on the people who currently deliver service. Of course, this assumes that researchers will be able to tackle problems with understanding various accents and communication strategies, which are strongly influenced by culture and, over time, the aging process.
After writing that last paragraph I stumbled onto this June 27, 2017 Sage Publications press release on EurekAlert about a related matter,
Existing digital technologies must be exploited to enable a paradigm shift in current healthcare delivery which focuses on tests, treatments and targets rather than the therapeutic benefits of empathy. Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dr Jeremy Howick and Dr Sian Rees of the Oxford Empathy Programme, say a new paradigm of empathy-based medicine is needed to improve patient outcomes, reduce practitioner burnout and save money.
Empathy-based medicine, they write, re-establishes relationship as the heart of healthcare. “Time pressure, conflicting priorities and bureaucracy can make practitioners less likely to express empathy. By re-establishing the clinical encounter as the heart of healthcare, and exploiting available technologies, this can change”, said Dr Howick, a Senior Researcher in Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences.
Technology is already available that could reduce the burden of practitioner paperwork by gathering basic information prior to consultation, for example via email or a mobile device in the waiting room.
During the consultation, the computer screen could be placed so that both patient and clinician can see it, a help to both if needed, for example, to show infographics on risks and treatment options to aid decision-making and the joint development of a treatment plan.
Dr Howick said: “The spread of alternatives to face-to-face consultations is still in its infancy, as is our understanding of when a machine will do and when a person-to-person relationship is needed.” However, he warned, technology can also get in the way. A computer screen can become a barrier to communication rather than an aid to decision-making. “Patients and carers need to be involved in determining the need for, and designing, new technologies”, he said.
I sincerely hope that the Canadian project has taken into account some of the issues described in the ’empathy’ press release and in the article, which can be found here,
Overthrowing barriers to empathy in healthcare: empathy in the age of the Internet
by J Howick and S Rees. Journaly= of the Royal Society of Medicine Article first published online: June 27, 2017 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0141076817714443
This article is open access.