Could an AI-powered companion help combat dementia memory loss?

Photo credit: Unsplash/Towfiqu barbhuiya

A new research project is to explore whether a robotic companion could help to prevent memory loss in individuals with dementia. Scientists from the National Robotarium, hosted by Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh universities, will study an AI-powered robot known as Furhat during the four-year process.

It has been equipped with expressions similar to those of a human being and the ability to speak. The companion will aim to prompt memories in the dementia sufferer by showing them photos, video and audio from their life, as well as significant cultural events.

In addition to the study using Furhat, scientists will also trial the use of a graphic character on a tablet. They want to see if it has a beneficial effect too, as rolling it out on these devices could be cheaper and easier in the short term.

Professor Ruth Aylett of the National Robotarium is leading the research and said the aim is to assess the effectiveness of the robot ahead of the technology becoming readily available. She added that evidence gathered in the past suggests a physical presence can be more powerful than a character on a screen.

While empathy is beyond the power of robots, it’s hoped they will seem “believable” to dementia patients. Professor Aylett made comparisons with cartoon characters, which despite not being real allow for interaction and enjoyment.

She told The Scotsman: “They don't see them as being a person as such, but they're willing to suspend their disbelief to some extent and treat them a little bit as if they were real, even though they know they're not real.”

It’s thought that AI could have a key role in improving the lives of people with cognitive diseases like dementia in the future. The researchers in Scotland are not the only scientists to be looking into the potential of this technology against a backdrop of 55 million people in the world living with dementia.

Professor Aylett highlighted the fact that dementia can lead to a range of symptoms in different people, meaning responses shouldn’t be based on a one size fits all model. Instead, it’s hoped the Agent-based Memory Prosthesis to Encourage Reminiscing (AMPER) project will lead to more individualised help.

Dr Mei Yii Lim, a co-investigator of the project, said: “AMPER will explore the potential for AI to help access an individual’s personal memories residing in the still viable regions of the brain by creating natural, relatable stories. These will be tailored to their unique life experiences, age, social context and changing needs to encourage reminiscing.”

AI-powered companions are going to be studied over four years as a memory aid for those with dementia.