A team of robotics engineers in Ireland have unveiled their first prototype of a social robot designed to work in assisted care facilities.

When Conor McGinn, head of the Innovation and Robotics Lab, Trinity College, Dublin, noticed the significant challenges faced by care facilities during the night when caregiver-to-resident ratios are low, he began working on a solution.

Along with his team, he created Stevie, a robot that can perform “several routine tasks, which will improve efficiency and substantially alleviate pressure on care staff during periods when the facility may be understaffed,” McGinn explained.

People 65 and older make up the fastest-growing age demographic in the U.S. The growth of the eldercare workforce is not keeping pace.

According to an estimate by human resources expert Paul Osterman, there will be a shortfall of 151,000 paid care workers by 2030. By 2040, that gap is projected to rise to 355,000. It isn’t surprising that technology is stepping in to fill the gap.

Crafting a technological fix for this problem is a delicate operation. It must of course be cost-effective, but also able to support human care workers without taking their jobs, and reliably attend to the needs of seniors in a dignified way.

As a starting point to this endeavor, Stevie the robot is being tested at Knollwood Military Retirement Community in Washington D.C.

Robot revolution

Stevie isn’t the first of his kind to be used by senior care facilities. Already there are robotic exoskeletons that help staff lift patients safely, robots that deliver medications around hospitals and even therapy robots designed to comfort and calm agitated dementia patients.

The way Stevie differs from these other robots is that he is designed as a ‘socially assistive robot,’ made to engage on an emotional level as well as a physical one. If you have an Alexa in your house then you are, in fact, already using a socially assistive robot. Similarly, Stevie is activated by a “Hey Stevie” and can understand language.

Possible uses for Stevie include going door-to-door taking meal orders, and alerting staff if a patient needs help. Stevie’s face can double as a video-conferencing screen, enabling a resident to video chat with a doctor or family member.

He is even programed to tell jokes and sing songs. Unsurprisingly, given his origin, “Danny Boy” seems to be a favorite tune.

Reactions to Stevie at the Knollwood Retirement community have been mixed. While some enjoyed his presence as it provided amusement, others felt that he was an unnecessary addition to the team.

Maybe now is not the time, but with the predicted shortfall of workers in the care industry looming, “Hey Alexa” may become “Hey Stevie” before we know it.

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