Social robots used in European hospital trial

‘Socially assistive’ advanced AI robots have been successfully tested in a European hospital trial to assist patients, reduce their anxiety and lessen pressure on nursing staff.

SPRING/Heriot Watt University

The SPRING (Socially Assistive Robots in Gerontological healthcare) trial, co-conducted by researchers from the UK’s National Robotarium, has developed robots equipped with advanced artificial intelligence.

The robots successfully enabled natural conversations, understood patient needs, and assisted hospital staff with routine tasks across three waves of experiments with elderly volunteers at Assistance Publique Hôpitaux de Paris.

Specifically, the robots were able to smoothly engage in social interactions like greeting patients, answering questions, and providing directions, according to research results. Critically, robots are quickly demonstrating an ability to comprehend multi-party conversations, following dialogue between several individuals simultaneously.

The researchers said that by undertaking simple but repetitive duties, robots also reduced potential physical contact between clinicians and patients, with early feedback suggesting the use of socially assistive robots may lower infection transmission risk while boosting productivity of nurses and doctors.

In a statement, Oliver Lemon, professor of AI and academic co-lead at the National Robotarium, said: “Today's rapid advances in AI are truly inspiring and open up a world of possibilities for its positive impact on various sectors, including healthcare.

“One of the most significant contributions of robotics and AI is its ability to conserve resources and alleviate human workload, therefore providing valuable new tools for enhancing healthcare delivery. The prospect of robots seamlessly collaborating with hospital staff to enhance the patient experience is now closer to reality.”

According to the researchers, anxiety and uncertainty can often precede a hospital visit, and this is often pronounced in senior patients. The availability of helpful and socially intelligent robots that can converse and answer initial screening questions whilst alleviating pressure on busy hospital staff could prove extremely beneficial in clinical settings.

Academics at the National Robotarium have made major advances in developing large language models (LLM) that enable robots to be capable of natural and fluent conversations with groups of people, to drive the SPING project.

The €8.4m collaborative SPRING project includes researchers from Heriot-Watt University; the Czech Technical University; Bar-Ilan University Israel; University of Trento, Italy; PAL Robotics, Spain; ERM Automatismes, France, and is coordinated by Inria, France. SPRING received support from Horizon 2020, a programme funded by the European Union.