Social robot is a 'real success'

The Pepper humanoid robot with members of the UTS Magic Lab. Picture: Chris Lane
The Pepper humanoid robot with members of the UTS Magic Lab. Picture: Chris Lane

Meet the newest staff member at Fairfield Hospital. It has the ability to understand more than 100 languages, work 24-hour shifts and has 'unlimited patience'. Oh, and it's a robot.

Fairfield Hospital has been chosen as one of the first sites in Australia to trial a Pepper humanoid robot to greet visitors and patients and help them find their way around the hospital.

The 10-day trial is part of a collaborative research project between South Western Sydney Local Health District's Clinical Innovation and Business Unit and the University of Technology Sydney. The hospital was chosen to trial the social robot technology because it serves one of Australia's most culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

The wayfinding robot interacts and collaborates with people using artificial intelligence technology in a natural and socially intuitive way to help people find their way in the hospital. From the maternity ward to the cafe, Peppa can point you in the right direction.

The robot listens to and speaks to people looking for directions in one-on-one engagement and shows the route on an adjoining screen.

Fairfield Hospital General Manager Paul Crowe and Director of the UTS Magic Lab, Distinguished Professor Mary-Anne Williams with the robot. Picture: Chris Lane

Fairfield Hospital General Manager Paul Crowe and Director of the UTS Magic Lab, Distinguished Professor Mary-Anne Williams with the robot. Picture: Chris Lane

Fairfield Hospital General Manager Paul Crowe said the robot is "extra-special" because it converses in five prevalent languages in south- west Sydney: English, Mandarin, Arabic, Vietnamese and Italian.

"Our patients and visitors have been amazed to see a robot in our foyer. It's been a real success - the robot is happy and friendly and everyone loves it," he said.

The research project will analyse the effectiveness of a social robot in a hospital wayfinding capacity and ignite ideas for future applications. The robot, which costs $25,000, is part of the district's quest to seek new technologies for transformative innovation to keep up with the demand for medical services.

Director of the UTS Magic Lab Distinguished Professor Mary-Anne Williams, said people-friendly robots can help "transform the hospital experience" for patients, visitors and health professionals by understanding real problems and developing solutions.

"Hospitals are complex buildings so by greeting people and helping them find locations more easily, they are more likely to make appointments on time, and help staff maintain schedules," Professor Williams said.

"We're starting with wayfinding which might not sound that interesting, but it is this hospital's biggest problem because of the language barrier. It is a hidden cost. If someone is late for an appointment, that means time is being wasted and everyone is pushed back.

The wayfinding robot interacts and collaborates with people using artificial intelligence technology.

The wayfinding robot interacts and collaborates with people using artificial intelligence technology.

"Social robots can navigate, fetch and carry, and help people find and connect with each other. They are multilingual and able to understand more than 100 languages.

"People enjoy interacting with social robots because they can read human emotions, don't make judgements and have unlimited patience.''

When asked if she could see a day when a social robot was in every hospital in Australia, Professor Williams said: "Absolutely."

"Staff mainly speak English, so the robots are a huge value add when you consider the time it takes to get a person who speaks another language. It's a social robot which means it has social skills and wants to engage with people," she said.

"Social robots are an emerging disruptive technology that offer a lot of opportunity for improving patient experience because they can understand people's complex issues in an emergency. They can transform communication in a hospital.

"Social robots can understand people's emotions. If you're in a panic situation, the robot can help settle you down and figure out how it can best help you. People often reveal more to robots, because they don't make judgement.

"We want to demonstrate that this technology is ready and we are working to find the right kind of applications which can have the most impact"

South Western Sydney Local Health District Project Manager David Kelly said the social robot utilises a convergence of technologies which allows voice and face recognition.

"The robot complements reception and some of the simple requests can be referred to the robot," he said.

"From this study we can look to further expand to other areas of the hospital."

Pepper will be participating in the public trial at Fairfield Hospital until early next week.

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