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January 24, 2011

Robots as Home Health Assistants: There's a Healthcare Innovation Patent for That


Could robots provide home healthcare services that would help seniors stay independent and healthy? Designing and deploying robotic health aides – machines smart enough to fill the projected demand for twenty-four hour home care – presents a number of challenges. iRobot, the company that brought you the Roomba house-cleaning robotic vacuum, launched a healthcare division in 2009 with the healthcare innovation goal of creating “next-generation practical robots” to help caregivers perform critical work and extend the time that people can live independently. According to iRobot, “Robots may be capable of assisting in senior care in a variety of real-life situations, including household chores and the on-time administration of medication.”

iRobot’s newest healthcare innovation, the robotic home assistant, isn’t on the market yet, and few details have emerged since CEO, Colin Angle, demonstrated some of its features at TEDMED 2009. But a recently issued patent provides an in-depth description of the next-generation capabilities that such machine caregivers may provide. On May 18, 2010, iRobot was granted US patent 7,720,572, Companion Robot for Personal Interaction.  The patent is 77 pages long and includes two primary and sixteen dependant claims.  The design intent of the robot that this patent describes is summarized as follows:

“It is preferably a function of the robot to act as a confidence, trust, and bonding manager. The robot is crafted to boot user trust and emotional attachment, which is beneficial in itself and provides generic benefits for any and all other applications, increasing their success rate.  This function addresses the challenge of introducing new and unfamiliar technology (especially autonomous self-controlled, mobile technology) into the lives of ordinary persons.”

As expected, most of the details about robotic capabilities related to healthcare assistance included in this Companion Robot patent are cast in terms of field-proven robotic technology such as sensors, antennas, and scene recognition algorithms.  What is less predictable, and more interesting, is that iRobot’s primary focus in this patent is not simply technology.  Rather, the patent is more outward looking as it discusses how companion robots will address two broader challenges: building trust between the machine and its human companion and integrating the robot with all the other networks and wireless devices it can expect to encounter in a typical smart, connected home. This article provides a snapshot of how iRobot’s patent addresses the issue of trust.  In the next article, we will look more closely at the opportunities outlined by iRobot for companion robots to serve as smart home integration platforms.

Building Trust

Throughout the Companion Robot patent, iRobot uses enforcement of health regimens such as medication adherence and exercise schedules. Anyone who has been involved in the enforcement of a health regimen, whether a health professional or a family member, can testify that getting an individual to do what is medically prescribed and ultimately good for them extends far beyond reading the labels on the pill bottles.  A necessary pre-requisite for any caregiving success is that the person expected to follow the health regimen trusts the person – or robot – responsible for helping them.

The trust that the iRobot companion sets out to build is the kind of trust one has in other people rather than the trust that one has, or is generally expected to have, in machine embedded technology.  This approach presents significant challenges, trying to evoke human trust while quite obviously not being human is tricky to say the least.  However, creating trust in a machine healthcare assistant will lead to more profound and more widely applicable opportunities for human-robot interactions in healthcare delivery.  One is reminded of the urban legend of the person ending an interaction with an automat by saying out loud “I know you’re a machine but thank you anyway.” This response gives a glimmer that what the iRobot design for a personal Companion Robot is attempting to accomplish.

The iRobot companion patent describes a robot that is equipped with a number of humanoid features.  It has a pixel face that shows emotion.  It has a digital skin that responds to touch.  It recognizes speech and can carry on limited conversations.  It moves politely out of the way when it is unneeded or unwanted. And it can even get testy with its reminders and recommendations if a required health regimen is not being followed.

Given that the robot is a live-in companion, privacy is an issue that has to be met head-on and if there is one topic in the patent that gets the most attention it is the relationship of privacy and trust. The particular aspect of privacy that has to be addressed is not so much what the robot knows, but what it tells others.  Not surprisingly the robot is technically equipped to contact a remote caregiver. The circumstances under which it does so and what information is sent to the remote caregiver are of keen and critical interest to both the individual with whom the robot is living and the caregiver. Along with its considerable network communication capabilities the iRobot companion includes a number of features that enable the resident and the caregiver to agree on a privacy policy that both can trust.

MedHealthWorld contributors analyze developments in healthcare innovation from new drug treatments to robotic surgery.   


Scott Guthery is co-author of 2 books on smart card development, 2 books on SIM and mobile application development and an inventor on 34 issued patents including the original Java Card´┐Ż patent. To read more of Scott's articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Jaclyn Allard

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