Robots pair with sonnets to assist elderly

Article originally appeared in UTA Shorthorn.

By Matt Fulkerson, The Shorthorn Staff

Updated September 21, 2016

All the world’s a stage, and all men and women – and robots – are merely players.

Interdisciplinary researchers at UTA are blending Shakespeare’s sonnets with robotics to assist older adults in a program funded through a seed grant from the Office of the President.

The joint program between the College of Liberal Arts, the School of Social Work and University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute involves researchers programming a humanoid robot to recite and perform a visual interpretation of a sonnet by Shakespeare with older adults, said Julienne Greer, theatre arts senior lecturer.

The robot will speak the first 12 lines of the sonnet. Together, the robot and a senior citizen will act out the final rhyming couplet.

“One of the reasons why I liked this idea is that there’s quite a lot of scholarship of human-to-human interaction with older adults in the arts,” she said. “These studies have shown that there are several psychological benefits to the participatory arts.”

Older adults often feel isolated in nursing homes and hospitals, Greer said.

“Some folks just can’t leave their home,” she said.

Research indicates that by participating in arts, including theater, older adults are better able to combat issues of loneliness and depression, she said. Since it would be impossible for theater troupes or actors to visit with every older adult, the group hypothesizes robotics might be an effective substitution.

The partnership between theater, social work and the institute goes back a few years, said Mike McNair, the institute principal research scientist. Theater arts, social work and the institute, he said, all have the common interest of benefiting people’s lives.

“What we wanted to do was leverage the strengths of these three areas here at UTA and pull together solutions,” he said.

Known as NAO, the humanoid robot the group will use has a long history of proven application, McNair said. With the ability to speak, hear, see, move, walk and dance, NAO seemed the perfect choice for the project.

“I think most people think that it’s approachable,” he said. “It’s non-threatening. It’s not like watching a Transformer* movie, where you’re worried about the big, bad robot coming after you.”

NAO’s approachability helps to put people’s minds at ease and makes interaction easier, McNair said.

“He’s what’s known as a mature robot,” Greer said. “He’s got a track record of research.”

Developed by Aldebaran Robotics, the first production version of NAO appeared in 2008. Since then, it has been used to assist educators in teaching programming and numerous research studies.

Geer is finalizing the purchase of NAO and expects to receive the robot in a few weeks. Once NAO is at the institute, the team will work on programming and expect to begin their research after the new year, he said.

NAO’s initial performance may be small, but Greer is excited about what the future may hold.

“If you can take the world’s greatest wordsmith-literary-poet-playwright and you can bring a robot in and they can play that scene, that’ll be incredible,” she said.


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