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Sunday 22 September 2019

Robo-carer: AI prototype Stevie 2 could be futuristic friend for elderly

‘Good companion’: Tony McCarthy and Brendan Crean with Stevie 2. Picture: Gerry Mooney
‘Good companion’: Tony McCarthy and Brendan Crean with Stevie 2. Picture: Gerry Mooney

Allison Bray

Is this the future of elderly care? Stevie 2 is Ireland's first 'socially assistive AI robot'.

With his boxy head, stubby arms and wheels for feet, he looks a bit like a male version of Rosey the Robot - the feisty robot maid in the futuristic 1960s cartoon series 'The Jetsons'.

Stevie 2 and his prototype predecessor Stevie 1 were designed by robotics engineers to work in assisted-care facilities to help not only the elderly but the disabled with routine tasks and chores.

While neither crack jokes or provide parenting tips like Rosey, they do interact with humans on a somewhat personal level.

Dubliner Tony McCarthy (64), who lives at the Alone charity's Willie Bermingham Place residence where Stevie 1 was piloted in 2017, said the prototype is almost human.

"He'd ask me did I remember to take my medication. Or I'd lie on the couch pretending to be asleep and he'd come over and ask me if I was OK," he told the Irish Independent. "I'd go to bed and he'd say 'Tony, did you remember to turn off the lights?'"

While he admits the robot is no substitute for real human interaction, he said the functions Stevie can perform can be a good stopgap measure if staff are unavailable or busy.

"I'm embracing it as long as he doesn't turn out like Hal," he said, referring to the killer robot in the film '2001: A Space Odyssey'. "But I'm not worried he's going to turn against me," he joked.

Fellow pensioner Brendan Crean (72), from Kilbarrack, north Dublin, said while Stevie 2 might not have a riveting personality, he does provide some company.

"He'd be a good companion for people living alone. If anyone comes to the door, Stevie can ask who it is," he said.

"I find it very helpful for people living alone," he said, adding robots may one day help to keep people out of nursing homes. But for the present, "it's a bit of fun for a laugh and to have a bit of craic with him," he said.

Stevie 2 speaks in the dulcet tones of an English gentleman - something that impressed the residents of a Washington nursing home where he was test-piloted earlier this year.

It was there where Stevie 2 was introduced to the elderly residents as part of a partnership with Trinity College Dublin. "They loved his accent, that was a big one," said Jessica Herpst, manager at the Army Distaff Foundation, which runs the Knollwood Retirement Community in Washington.

Irish Independent

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