Dr. Goldie Nejat’s earliest memories illustrate her innate curiosity about what makes machines tick. At age six, she was fascinated with remote-controlled cars; today, she’s building robots. 

“I started taking things apart to figure out how they work,” recalls Dr. Nejat. “Everything that looks like a black box, I like to reverse-engineer. I really want to know what is driving the technology inside, especially things that are dynamic and have multiple moving parts.”

Her childhood inquisitiveness laid the foundation for a lifetime of discovery that has propelled her to the top of an emerging field. During fourth year of an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto, she homed in on robotics. Today, she is director of the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics at U of T, combining her two areas of interest – engineering and healthcare.

For more than a decade Dr. Nejat and her team have conducted research that is now on the cusp of exploding, ready to positively and tangibly change the lives of older Canadians with cognitive impairment, reduce stress on caregivers and transform healthcare delivery in ways considered Star Wars-esque not long ago.

The future is here

The team has developed robots that are used for everything from search and rescue to occupational therapy and, increasingly, to support older adults with cognitive issues to live independently.

Dr. Nejat, who also holds the Canada Research Chair in Robots for Society and is a researcher with AGE-WELL, Canada’s technology and aging network, spearheads the design, development and deployment of what are known as socially assistive robots – machines with the ability to guide people via social interactions, such as speech, facial expressions, gestures and body language. The robots are not hands-on per se, but rather prompt people through the steps involved in day-to-day activities.

“It’s very exciting to see your robot interacting with a person,” she says. “We have robots that can autonomously facilitate bingo games, trivia and other types of memory games, robots helping with activities of daily living, such as meal preparation and assistance with eating. We even have robots that provide clothing recommendations.” 

Robots for an aging population

When Dr. Nejat started her work 13 years ago, there was already talk about Boomers and the role technology could play in supporting an aging population. Now that time has come. In 2016, for the first time Canadians aged 65 and older outnumbered children – 16.9 percent versus 16.6 percent. Thanks to longer life expectancies, centenarians are the fastest-growing segment of Canada’s population.

“As we age, there is more chance of physical and cognitive impairment, so we are looking to use robotic technology to help support individuals, to improve their quality of life, and help promote independent living as much as we can,” says Dr. Nejat.

According to the World Health Organization, 47.5 million people live with dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, worldwide. Symptoms include memory loss, impaired problem-solving and reasoning capabilities, as well as deteriorating language skills. The total number of people with dementia is projected to increase to 82 million in 2030 and 152 million in 2050, with corresponding implications for healthcare needs.

This is one area where the use of robots could be game changing. Add to this the breakneck speed of technology, as well as the emergence of artificial intelligence, and it is a perfect storm for machines that can communicate with, respond to and support people as they age. 

“The acceleration in technology is fantastic for us because sensors are cheaper and computing capabilities are more affordable. All these factors are helping to drive the development of our technology,” says Dr. Nejat, who is the lead investigator on an AGE-WELL-funded project to create assistive robots that can be used at home, as well as in hospitals and long-term care facilities, to support people with cognitive impairment.

“Our robots have real-world impact, and that’s really important. When we develop our technologies, we take them to the users that are going to interact with them and implement them,” she says of the fleet of robots “brought to life” with names such as Brian, Casper, Tangy and Leia. “For us, it’s important to see the technology meeting the needs and wants of the users, whether it’s the older adults themselves or their caregivers.”

There’s a robot in the house

Residents and staff at O’Neill House, a long-term care and retirement home in Toronto, first met Tangy in 2013, as part of a research project led by Dr. Nejat’s team.

“With dementia, the question is could we develop technology to help support these individuals through repetition, reminders, memory training? Is there any way we could use this technology to help improve and maintain their cognitive functioning while at the same time have a robot that could adapt to them throughout their lifespan?”

“The project was exciting and innovative, and we were happy to be a part of it,” recalls Deslyn Jack, executive director at O’Neill House.

Tangy visited the facility regularly and residents provided key feedback.

“They wanted it to look more human-like,” says Jack, adding that researchers adjusted the robot’s response rate, as well as tone of voice, to make it more appealing. 

As part of the research, Tangy was programmed to facilitate bingo games. “The robot will search for a specific group of residents in its physical environment to deliver messages about when and where the bingo game will take place,” says Jack. “The robot will then go to the specified location of the game to execute and monitor the bingo activity.”

Researchers measured engagement by monitoring whether residents were compliant when the robot asked them to do something, and conducted questionnaires exploring residents’ opinions and their intent to use the robot again. 

Including end users in the design process is an important part of taking such technologies to the next stage and making them viable in the real world. 

“We want to promote independence through this technology so can we keep people in their homes where they want to be longer,” says Dr. Nejat. “The key is that the robots will be autonomous and intelligent, and can adapt to users.”

Five years in, the findings from the Tangy study are positive, and Jack says the rewards for residents “have greatly exceeded our expectations.” 

The future is friendly

Due in large part to Dr. Nejat’s research, Canada is considered an international leader in socially assistive robotic technology. 

“There is a lot of development being done in different parts of the world,” says Dr. Nejat. “We are focusing on the intelligence of the robot.”

The next step is making these robots available commercially, a goal that is less than five years away. Dr. Nejat also sees a day in the not-too-distant future when her robots will be able to juggle multiple tasks in real time; detect a person’s mood and respond accordingly; and seamlessly interact with and understand more than one user at a time. Three new robots – Mia, Blueberry and Pepper – are in the works. 

With robotic technology that enables driverless cars, and virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home already part of today’s vernacular, machines that look and sound human – and can provide assistance and companionship throughout the aging process – are at our doorstep and will soon be at the dinner table. 

Take it from the curious kid-turned-acclaimed-scientist making intelligent machines: Science, yes. Fiction, no. 

Originally published in Issue 02 of YouAreUNLTD Magazine. PG. 30