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Mario offers elderly a lifeline

This particular piece of research hasn’t been done, but it’s probably reasonable to assume that if you walked down the main street of Roscommon, Boyle, Ballaghaderreen, or Castlerea and you asked every person you met about what kind of companionship they’d like in their later years in the event of their mental acuity declining, not too many would hope for a 4ft tall robot named after a famous computer game character.

Dystopian though it may seem, some patients at the Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon have been in exactly that situation for the past few months, thanks to a pan-european project that is being trialled there by researchers from NUI Galway.

Known as the MARIO project (Managing Active and healthy Ageing with the use of Caring Service Robots), it involves the building and testing of a robot designed not to cater for the medical needs of those suffering from mental health issues, but to provide companionship. Sarah Summerville, part of the NUIG research team and a PhD student in health Psychology, explained the context for the project.

“There are 41,740 people living with dementia -26,000 of those live at home. Many of them live alone, which leads to issues in the area of isolation and independence. “It’s been proven that they will have a better quality of life and retain many of their cognitive and physical abilities better if a supportive psycho-social environment exists.” The presence of the MARIO robot at the Sacred heart hospital in Roscommon is one of three trials that are ongoing across europe. The robot is also being tested in a home setting in England, and in a hospital in Italy.

The shape and style of Mario helps to anthropomorphise what is effectively a laptop on wheels, providing a clean and basic interface that allows users to have a very brief conversation, to access news, listen to music or play games. Ms Summerville explained however that the method of interaction would be of benefi t to patients, even if the functionality was available through other devices.

“Coming at it from a health psychology perspective, stimulating someone’s emotional well-being or sense of wellness is what makes it different to a laptop or tablet,” she stated. “Those are very static things that can only help residents with functions, but won’t work on quality of life. “Mario gives people options by asking questions — if you want to play music or play a game. The friends and family app, the smart Skype option, again gives autonomy and it helps you to connect with people. emotionally and socially, you’re targeting those key points in people’s life. “There’s also feedback. Laptops won’t give you feedback.

If you tell Mario to do something, he’ll do it for you. If you tell Mario to go away, he’ll do that — a laptop won’t do that for you, but Mario can remove himself from the situation if you’re uncomfortable. We’re always trying to improve him and that’s part of the process here in Roscommon, to learn about what we can do better, but things like voice recognition, a laptop can’t give you that. “Mario will do things on demand and will respond to what you’re saying,” said Ms Summerville.

Already companion robots of this nature are in use around the world, many of them costing significant sums of money. however, it is envisaged that Mario would be priced at a level that would allow it to be accessible to private users and small care facilities like the Sacred heart. Medical functionality will not be added since the regulations behind medical devices are far more stringent than for companion robots, which would in turn add a signifi cant time delay – though aspects like a camera, an SOS button and the ability to contact friends and family through Skype or a similar web-calling service are all features that will be added.

Already the learning capability of Mario is in evidence when we look at the list of music that is first to crop up — the country music tastes of the Sacred Heart residents have clearly had an impact! Mary Butler, Director of Nursing at the Sacred Heart, explained that so far the experiment had proved worthwhile, albeit for patients at a certain level of mental awareness: “We’ve found that it suits some residents depending on their personal capacity,” she stated. “Those who are medically declining, perhaps with short recall ability, get some benefi t, but after a while and as cognitive decline grows more severe, residents can lose interest,” she said. Overall she declared the trial to be “very favourable” and said that after some initial scepticism, staff had responded very well to Mario’s presence: “There were a few raised eyebrows when we told them about it, they might have wondered if they were about to get replaced – but since he’s been here, he’s really been an addition and a help, but he’ll never replace the human touch of the staff or family member,” she added

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