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When it comes to using robots to help the elderly, the future is almost here.

That’s according to Professor Goldie Nejat (MIE), who says we’re only a few years away from deploying robots in long-term care facilities to help residents with everyday tasks, exercise and cognitive stimulation.

Her long-term vision is to design robots that can assist in improving seniors’ quality of life, alleviating some of the burden on their caregivers and family members – and, ultimately, contributing to the expansion of the Ontario economy.

“Health-care robotics is growing substantially, and U of T is at the cutting edge of designing these robots,” says Nejat, a Canada Research Chair in Robots for Society.

“We’re training the next generation of skilled researchers and entrepreneurs to develop this technology and integrate it into our health-care system to assist people who need the care.”

On Wednesday, Nejat, will be one of four presenters pitching their ideas to the audience at the Ontario Economic Summit. The annual event is organized by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and brings together industry representatives, experts and government officials to talk about the province’s economy. The theme for this year’s edition – taking place at the Beanfield Centre at Toronto’s Exhibition Place – is competitiveness. Premier Doug Ford and Mayor John Tory are scheduled to attend.

Goldie Nejat and a student interact with a socially assistive robot named Tangy, which is designed to facilitate recreational activities and promote social interaction among people with degenerative cognitive conditions such as dementia (photo by Laura Pedersen)

Nejat is among three members of the U of T Engineering community taking part in a session titled “The Next Big Idea.” Each will present a pitch for how a hypothetical public investment of $100 million in their respective sectors could be utilized to drive competitiveness and economic growth in the province.

Nejat will discuss how socially assistive robots can help adults living with dementia as well as health-care workers; Professor Hani Naguib (MIE), director of the Toronto Institute for Advanced Manufacturing (TIAM), will discuss how advanced manufacturing and smart materials can usher in a revolutionary transformation for factories and industry; and Allen Lau (ElecE 9T1, ECE MASc 9T2), CEO of data-driven publishing platform Wattpad, will talk about how to nurture Ontario’s tech ecosystem into a global powerhouse.

The session will be moderated by Christine Allen, U of T’s associate vice-president and vice-provost, strategic initiatives, and a professor in the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy.

One of the session’s participants is likely to stand out in the crowd, according to Nejat.

“We’re going to take one of our robots and have a demonstration where it engages people to do a few exercise sessions with it,” she says.

That’s a capability that Nejat and her team are also preparing to test in a two-month study that will see the robot lead residents of a long-term care facility through physiotherapist-approved exercises.

“We’ll assess residents’ acceptance of the robot … and any other feedback during the interaction,” says Nejat.

Nejat’s robots have already spent time in long-term care facilities, where residents, family members, caregivers and administrators have been given the chance to have “meet-and-greet” sessions with them.

“It’s interesting to see how naturally people interact with social robots. They talk to the robot in a similar way that they talk to people. They respond to it, they’re engaged,” she says. “This shows the capabilities and potential of the technology.”

Nejat says robots hold promise in providing older adults with cognitive stimulation.

“Dementia is a worldwide epidemic for which there’s no cure, so it’s important for us to look at using technology to help us live with a certain quality of life as we age and our population demographics change,” she says. “It’s important for older adults to be healthy as they age, be active and take part in social interactions. There’s a lot of potential for robots to support their everyday lives in this way.”

Nejat says U of T’s prowess in robotics and related technologies like AI, as well as Toronto’s bustling innovation and startup ecosystem, makes it the perfect place in which to grow the sector.

“In addition to improving people’s lives, this sector can spur job creation through startups and spin-off companies, as well as the entry of established robotics companies. My pitch at the Ontario Economic Summit will centre on how robotics can help with everyday life, support us as we age and contribute to job creation and economic prosperity in the province.”

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