Moojan Ghafurian, Kerstin Dautenhahn and Jesse Hoey awarded funding to develop emotionally intelligent robots to help people with dementia

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Moojan Ghafurian, Graham Postdoctoral Fellow in the Cheriton School of Computer Science, and Kerstin Dautenhahn, Canada 150 Chair in Intelligent Robotics in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, have received a catalyst grant from the University of Waterloo’s Network for Aging Research to develop emotionally intelligent robots to help people with dementia. Jesse Hoey, Associate Professor in the Cheriton School of Computer Science, and Jennifer Boger, Assistant Professor in the Department of Systems Design Engineering, complete the multidisciplinary team.  

More than half a million Canadians currently live with dementia, a group of symptoms caused most commonly by Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia affects a person’s memory, thinking and social abilities. As it progresses, dementia interferes more and more with a person’s daily life and places an increasing burden on their caregivers. The cost of dementia to the healthcare system and caregivers is an estimated $10.4 billion per year, a figure expected to rise to $16.6 billion by 2031.

photo of Kerstin Dautenhahn, Moojan Ghafurian and Jesse Hoey with social robots

L to R: Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn, Canada 150 Chair in Intelligent Robotics (holding MiRo, a programmable autonomous biomimetic robot), Dr. Moojan Ghafurian, Graham Postdoctoral Fellow (holding NAO, an autonomous, programmable humanoid robot) and Associate Professor Jesse Hoey

“Intelligent assistive technologies can help people with dementia perform daily activities more independently and improve quality of lives,” said Dr. Moojan Ghafurian. “Our goal is to develop social robots that can successfully assist people with Alzheimer’s disease in performing their daily activities. But along with being able to provide support to complete a task, it’s crucially important that social robots also be emotionally intelligent.”

Despite cognitive decline, people with Alzheimer’s disease retain a sense of self and an understanding of who they are, both of which have strong emotional components. A robot’s ability to sense and adapt to a person’s identity and emotional state, and then to express appropriate emotions in response may be critical to persuade the person to perform common daily activities such as dressing or taking medication. 

Although many studies show that the attitudes of older adults toward robots are generally favourable, few have examined how effective robotic assistants are for people with dementia.

“In the first phase of our project, we will conduct studies with people with dementia and their caregivers to identify the tasks for which a person with dementia may require help,” Dr. Ghafurian said. “In the study’s second phase, we’ll co-design an assistive robot with people with dementia and their caregivers according to their needs and preferences. In the third phase, we’ll evaluate the effectiveness of the social robots in helping a person with dementia.”

“Congratulations to Moojan and Kerstin on receiving this catalyst grant,” said Mark Giesbrecht, Director of the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science.  “This innovative research is extremely timely. Each year, 25,000 new cases of dementia are diagnosed in Canada. The research that Moojan and Kerstin are conducting will help people with dementia to live more independently, lower costs to the healthcare system and help reduce the burden on caregivers.”

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