A team of researchers at Imperial College London are modifying a 6-foot, 140 kg robot named ‘Baxter’ originally developed for use in industry in the attempt to turn it into a care-giving ‘nursebot’.
Baxter, who has mechanical arms and an animated face is more used to carrying out tasks such as loading, unloading, sorting and handling materials – particularly those which are heavy or potentially hazardous to humans. But the research team believe that Baxter’s true vocation could be as a ‘supplementary’ care giver, assisting patients with disabilities or chronic conditions.
The modifications the team are making to Baxter means the robot will be able to pass people their medicines or other objects such as spectacles or a warm blanket. It is hoped the new-improved Baxter will even be able to help patients with restricted movement or dexterity dress. The motivation is to potentially help alleviate the chronic shortage of nurses that the UK and most of the rest of the world already faces. And it’s a problem that is not expected to improve over coming years as populations age and nursing struggles to attract enough new applicants to meet NHS needs. The NHS expects a shortfall of as many as 40,000 nurses within a few years.
Among the modifications the researchers are making to Baxter are adding 3-D printed fingers that will improve the robot’s dexterity and other features to allow it to safely and precisely hand objects to people. Artificial intelligence that means Baxter is able to learn and improve from experience is also a key component to the latest models. Quoted in The Times, professor of human-centred robots Yiannis Demiris explained:
“The emphasis is on the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning for assistive robots to continuously learn about their users, including their preferences and skills, and adapt the assistance to maximise the benefit.”
As well as providing physical assistance, one of the ways it is hoped that nursebots such as Baxter and other models will be able to contribute is to monitor gradual deteriorations or improvements in patients. We shouldn’t expect to see Baxter rolling down hospital corridors or in patient homes in the immediate future though, as the modified model will have to undergo additional safety tests and then clinical trials before it could be introduced into a real environment.
The researchers behind the Baxter modifications are quick to stress that they don’t see nursebots as a replacement for human nurses or other care givers, with a human touch hugely important. Even if, one day, robots are able to do much of what human medical professionals do today, the psychological need for human contact, especially in the case of the sick or infirm, means that the role of robots will always be to provide supplementary assistance and not be primary care givers.