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By Monica E. Oss

What did I think of the three robots at today’s 2015 OPEN MINDS Technology & Informatics Institute? Raymond T. Heipp, Ph.D., the Director of Assistive and Educational Technologies of Westminster Technologies, Inc., summed  it up best in his presentation when he said, “Many people take a look at our NAO robot and say that it’s just like the robot on the Jetsons. My response to them is that we’re far past the Jetsons right now.” I couldn’t agree more. I was surprised at exactly how far robotic technology has come and the many potential uses in systems serving consumers with a wide range of needs. The three robots we saw this week are each quite distinct in terms of their capabilities.


NAO – NAO is a 24-inch-tall humanoid companion service robot that can be programmed to provide social interaction skills training. It was developed by Aldebaran Robotics and can move independently; process two video streams; and comes with Nuance, a vocal recognition program with a “word spotting” function that enables the program to isolate and recognize specific words within sentences or conversation.


Mabu – Mabu is a personal health care companion, socially interactive robot whose conversations are tailored to each consumer. The robot provides information and support for sufferers of chronic diseases like diabetes, arthritis, cancer, and heart disease, and will be rolled out this year to help a particular group of patients manage the medication portion of their treatment. Mabu isn’t mobile, but can make eye contact while carrying on a conversation with someone and is capable of simple gestures with its head.

roborita[1]RITA – RITA provides a platform to improve and increase patient engagement. It can be used anywhere there’s a need to reach out to a physician, especially in remote areas, or to augment existing services in clinics, hospitals, and other community care settings.

During the presentation by Dr. Heipp and Cory Kidd, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer, Catalia Health, Are Robots The Future Of Health Care? A Discussion With Robotics Innovators, I was surprised to learn that robots are so advanced at gathering consumer data, facilitating consumer education and engagement, leading therapeutic activities, teaching social skills, monitoring medication, and assessing the need for in-person case management intervention. Robots are being used to serve kids with autism, consumers in nursing homes, and cancer survivors. And that wasn’t all that surprised me. There were a few other items:

Surprise #1 – The most surprising information in the presentation was that people are more responsive to robots than to internet-based avatars or smartphone apps. Consumers are “engaged” with robot-delivered care management longer, and often voluntarily wish to continue robotic interventions. The theory (which I am still trying to wrap my head around) is that people consider advice from something with a physical presences as more credible. In fact, people seem to “bond” with their robots – giving the robots names and clothing.

Surprise #2 – Artificial intelligence (need I say more?).

Surprise #3 – Maintenance of robot functionality can be done by remote staff using internet linkage.

Surprise #4 – Robots can be “loaded” with custom functionality. They can have facial recognition software and can recognize who they are talking to, whether that be the consumer, caregiver, or someone else. They can produce and record visual images or audio tracks. They can be imbedded with logic for care management or consumer assessments or therapy programs.

Surprise #5 – Robots are Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliant and can be set up to generate data that is electronic health record (EHR) interoperable.

Surprise #6 – The price of robots is declining with volume (like most tech products). The NAO is now only $9,000 and the Mabu leases for $150 – $200 per month.

Like all technologies, I think it will take a while for robots to move from pilots to scalable. But as the functionality increases and the price continues to decline, the return-on-investment (ROI) opportunities are endless. Care manager for the superutilizer population; monitoring children in foster families, companions for individuals in solitary confinement in the corrections system; supplied to consumers upon discharge from the hospital; monitoring the status of medically or emotionally fragile individuals who are living at home…the list could go on. The possibilities are probably limited by our imagination in service line development – and our willingness to reimagine the fundamentals of consumer engagement.

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