Canadian engineers program ‘companion’ robot to help find missing items

The Fetch robot used by the University of Waterloo researchers (University of Waterloo)
The Fetch robot used by the University of Waterloo researchers (University of Waterloo)

Dementia sufferers could in the future receive help from robots with “episodic memory”, thanks to research from Canada’s University of Waterloo.

Engineers have developed a system whereby robots can be trained to remember specific items — keys, pills or a phone, for example — and recall where they were last seen, on demand.

"The long-term impact of this is really exciting," said Dr Ali Ayub, a post-doctoral fellow in electrical and computer engineering, and co-author of the paper.

"A user can be involved not just with a companion robot but a personalised companion robot that can give them more independence."

The researchers programmed a Fetch mobile manipulator robot to use its built-in camera to detect, track and ‘memorise’ a selection of specific items via stored video. As the robot can tell the difference between objects it’s tracking, it can time stamp the moment when tagged items come in and out of view.

The addition of a graphical interface allows users to choose objects to track and then search for them via a smartphone app or computer. The robot can then indicate when and where it last saw the missing item in question.

It’s proved very accurate, though the researchers accept that the technology involved may prove confusing to those with dementia. However, for caregivers, it could certainly make life a lot easier.

Interestingly, these researchers aren’t the only ones considering the use of robots for object tracking. Internal documents recently seen by Insider revealed that Amazon is considering similar functionality for a future generation of its Astro home robot.

Astro is an autonomous robot that can follow a user around the home (Amazon)
Astro is an autonomous robot that can follow a user around the home (Amazon)

The report details how Amazon intends to tap into the power of generative artificial intelligence and provide a future robot with a layer of “intelligence and conversational spoken interface”. This means Astro 2.0 could potentially spot things around the house and then “engage in a Q&A dialogue on what it saw”.

Examples include spotting that the hob has been left on and informing a human; phoning 999 if it sees a human falling over; and, yes, helping to track down missing items such as keys.

All of these functions could be useful to elderly, forgetful or infirm patients, but there are two major hurdles in the way.

The first is the ability and/or willingness for those in need to learn to use the technology. The second is the price: Astro 1.0 has just gone up another $100 to hit $1,600 in the States (around £1,287).

The latter will come down over time, and that might help with the familiarity problem. If people have been dealing with smart robots their whole lives, then instinctively understanding the core principles that help with ill health later in life may become a whole lot more straightforward.