Pepper already knew how to phone or teach gym classes. But, with the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been programmed to help isolated people, in the framework of an artificial intelligence experiment carried out by a Scottish university.
Scientists at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh have programmed robots, including Pepper, created in Japan in 2014 to perform tasks normally performed by assistants.
“We seek in particular to understand what the needs of the most vulnerable people are at the moment, and what technologies could be used to make life easier for them,” Mauro Dragone, the scientist responsible for the project, told the AFP agency. It is also about “easing the current pressure on social and health services,” he adds.
The project seeks to provide solutions for priority groups, which are even more vulnerable due to the isolation measures taken in the face of the pandemic.
In the context of this research, Pepper and other robots perform exercises in a university laboratory that recreates an apartment, with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room.
It involves programming robots to perform basic household chores and to help people with visual or hearing problems, or who suffer from dementia. Robots could also detect health problems and transmit an alert in an emergency, allowing rapid intervention by health services.
According to Dragone, the laboratory uses “invisible” detection technology. “More than connecting sensors, we use technologies such as the wifi signal to detect the presence and activities of people in your home,” he explains.
This often allows the system to function without specific hardware to install or move. The researchers are “aware” of the confidentiality issues and ethical issues that this project could raise, adds the researcher.
An international group of experts on artificial intelligence ethics monitors the experiment and will carry out “constant” evaluations of the risks of this technology, as it is developed.
The university invited researchers, service providers and users of home help systems to participate remotely in the project.
The Scottish Coalition of Care and Support Providers, which represents some 80 volunteer aides helping some 200,000 people, has encouraged its members to collaborate with the project.
Covid-19 has made the need to implement “digital solutions” in the healthcare sector more urgent, says Emma Donnelly, director of the group’s digital program.
For her, the project has been received “very positively” so far. “Health care providers know that the project will help them make their daily lives a little easier,” she says.