Rise of the resthome robots
In an unassuming Auckland resthome, the world’s largest trial of robot nurses has just been launched. The profession is set to get a high tech boost in the coming years thanks in part to this Kiwi/Korean collaboration between technology entrepreneurs, researchers and universities.
Words by Greg Bruce
Photographs by Isaac de Reus
The project manager doesn’t seem all that convinced he should be showing us the robot research hub. “I’m not sure how tidy it is,” he says. “And I don’t know if you’ll be able to take photos.”
It turns out to be quite untidy, and also unlike anything at any resthome anywhere in the world, and therefore ideal for photos.
The robot research hub is a three-bedroom show home behind a residential block at Selwyn Village in Auckland’s Pt Chevalier and the base for a study into how robots can help care for the elderly. It’s a collaboration between the University of Auckland and four Korean organisations, including Korea’s largest government-funded research institute ETRI. This morning, there are around 10 people working in the house and only slightly fewer robots.
There are research nurses, research assistants, technicians, PhD students, project managers and content developers here, working with robots made by three separate Korean companies. At the moment, the robots are effectively clever computers that do things like taking your blood pressure and vital signs, making Skype calls and showing you funny cat photos or video clips of Susan Boyle.
But, if all goes according to plan, in a few years they might just put some New Zealand researchers and companies at the forefront of the enormous elder care industry – and they might also save your life.
In the show home’s tiny kitchen, two of the researchers are trying to make morning tea. One of the robots – known as a Guide – is right in the middle of the kitchen. It’s bigger than either one of them and is clearly in the way, but they seem not to even notice it.
Down the hallway, in one of the bedrooms, three Korean researchers are working with three partially assembled robots. Across the hall, the toilet and bathroom are piled floor to ceiling with empty boxes, packaging and other robot detritus. More detritus is scattered on the floor throughout the house.
The project manager, Ben Robins, speaks briefly with three Korean engineers, then turns back to us. “Yeah, sorry, no photos,” he says.
It’s a shame, because it’s an incredible scene: a small retirement village apartment packed with ambitious academics, engineers and robots.
It’s been called “the age quake” and ”the silver tsunami”: the rush of baby boomers into their retirement years. In New Zealand today, one in eight people is over 65. In 2025, it will be one in five. The numbers are similar around the developed world – in the case of the United States, they’re almost identical.
As we age, we often lose the ability to do the simple tasks that living alone requires: taking medication, turning off ovens, locking doors, closing windows. We solve the problem by putting our elderly into care, which is expensive and dislocating and difficult.
Elder care costs are already starting to spiral. By the middle of this century, an estimated 67 per cent of healthcare costs will come from the over 65s. Many developed countries are pursuing a strategy of “ageing in place” to allow the elderly to remain independent and reduce the burden, although at this stage, nobody is quite sure how this is going to work. The market, though, is huge. Already, in the United States, $100 billion is being spent annually on ”care in place”.
For organisations able to find ways of making the concept work, there is a massive opportunity.
As unlikely as it may seem, New Zealand has emerged as a centre of this effort and at the centre of that centre is Associate Professor Bruce MacDonald, a robotics expert from the University of Auckland.
When he first travelled to Korea to discuss robotics as part of a New Zealand trade delegation several years ago, it set in train a series of events that led directly to that robot-filled show home at Selwyn Village.
“I wasn’t keen to go,” he says. “I thought I would be talking for an hour, then spending the rest of the time listening to things I wasn’t interested in. I got dragged in, and I said ‘we’re working with robots and is anybody interested?’”
It turns out they were. Korea’s government funded research institute ETRI had been developing personal robots and were interested in developing a market. They were impressed with New Zealand’s expertise in delivery of health services and with the way the University’s research arm, UniServices, had been able to develop global products and get them implemented overseas.
An agreement was signed and the project was given an initial $5.4m funding from the New Zealand and Korean governments.
With the money secured, MacDonald began building a team, including specialists in robotics, engineering, psychology, gerontology and – crucially – outside companies who were interested in developing products and services around the robot.
He admits he’s biased, but thinks that the project is now the most advanced of its kind in the world. And the reason for that, he says, is collaboration.
The project is ultimately about creating a better quality of life for the elderly, but MacDonald says that’s a goal that can only be achieved by creating a system that is commercially successful and pervasive. It’s not just about science. It’s about science collaborating with business to create a product that is both effective and marketable.
“From a scientific view, it’s about gauging efficacy,” he says. “From a business view, it’s ‘does it provide value?’”
A woman shuffles into the Selwyn Village reception area on a walking frame. It’s a week or two after the robots have been brought in for their latest trial. She notices the robot in the corner and smiles: “Oh look! It’s Charlie!” she says, using the nickname researchers gave the robots that were brought here for their first research trials two years ago.
This robot, however, is actually not Charlie. It’s a new robot, made by a different Korean company. It’s nearly twice as big as Charlie, and where he was essentially a screen on a stick, this robot (researchers call it ”Guide”, although the factory paint job says ”Mr Aro”) looks like a slightly eccentric young woman, with its wide-set eyes, blushing cheeks and stylised Mohawk.
The woman stands in front of the robot for maybe a minute, staring, as if she’s just met an old friend. She calls it Charlie again and although she never stops smiling, she shows no desire to approach it.
Familiarity, though, leads to acceptance, and this is part of the reason why both Mr Aro and Charlie (known to researchers as Cafero) have been set up in public loca- tions around the village for this new trial and why other robots called iRobiQ are being set up in residents’ private apartments. When the study is fully underway, five different types of robot, 30 in total, will be in use at Selwyn, making it the biggest research trial of its type in the world.
The researchers want residents using them as much as possible so they can gather data with which to improve the robot but – just as importantly – so they can pass that data to their commercial partners to create applications and devices that will make the robot as useful as possible.
CEO of UniServices, Peter Lee has a favourite catchphrase: “Research is not just good for business. Research is good business.”
Research is certainly big business. UniServices has 700 staff and $125 million in revenue last year and it’s set for $150m this year, according to Lee.
It exists to commercialise research carried out at the University of Auckland by bringing together business and academia, and it has been a critical link in the robot project from the beginning.
“We said, ‘this is an opportunity for NZ Inc.’,” Lee says. “We’ll get a cluster of companies developing apps and devices around the framework of the robot and between the two of us [New Zealand and Korea], we’ll take the solution into the United States.”
So UniServices set up a website, Kumanu (Māori for care), to attract business involvement, and business development manager David Cotter then set about finding businesses who could both benefit the project and benefit from the project.
One of the companies he signed up is Lifetime Health Diary, a Kiwi company which produces software to bring together all of a person’s health information into one integrated page that can then be electronically shared among doctor, pharmacist, nurse, caregiver and whoever else needs to see it. It’s envisioned that the robot will guide the patient through the process of recording vital signs, then automatically transmit the updated Lifetime Health Diary document to the relevant people, exponentially improving the quality of their care.
Another Kiwi company, Pulsecor, is working with the project to test its high tech blood pressure monitoring equipment. The Pulsecor equipment is in use on many of the public robots in Selwyn Village and measures arterial stiffness as an additional way of determining cardiovascular health. Researchers are getting almost as many blood pressure readings from staff as from residents, but they’re not unhappy about that. It’s all data.
What the companies get from the project is the benefit of research feedback, allowing them to develop and improve the product for the elder care market. What the university gets is a smarter robot, with more applications and functions and therefore more research possibilities and more chance of success.
But, as much as the mutual benefits are obvious from the outside, academia and business are not always happy bedfellows. Even UniServices, whose role it is to bring the two together, acknowledges that their different goals – research outputs versus profits – can make for awkward interactions. But Bruce MacDonald has made it a personal mission to ensure that is not a problem with the robot project. He recognises the crucial role business investment has to play in the project’s success.
“We [researchers] might have good ideas,” he says, “but getting them into the marketplace is hard work. Sometimes people stand back and blame either business or the university for not crossing that gap. I just think we need to do it together. Not every innovation is going to make a product. It needs a partnership. We all need to try to make it happen.”
In one of Selwyn Village’s many communal lounges, there’s a modest chapel. Three or four rows of chairs face a table featuring a small, framed picture of Jesus. To the right of the table, amongst a tangle of wires and laptops, three Koreans are talking and tapping on their keyboards. In the roof, an electronic ZigBee network is being installed, which will allow robots to navigate their own way around the building.
Soon after the network is complete, when a resident falls a specially designed bracelet will send a signal to a robot – designed and built by Koreans, developed and tested by New Zealanders, using software and hardware from New Zealand companies, with input from psychologists, gerontologists, engineers, programmers, research assistants – which will then use the network to find its way to the injured person anywhere in this building, and will check to see if that person is okay. If they’re not, it will call for emergency help.
When the robot is commercialised and it saves its first life, as it surely will, chances are nobody will mention UniServices or Lifetime Health Diary or Pulsecor, or any of the countless researchers and academics that worked together to create it. Teams aren’t that sexy and “collaboration” doesn’t read well in a headline. But they won’t care. If successful, their work won’t just save lives; it will change the way we think about ageing. It’s not a stretch to say their work will change the way we live. That will be reward enough.
Originally published in IN-Business March/April 2012