This social robot is a boon to seniors living alone

Mr Francis Swee, 20 (left), and Mr Yu Zhigang, 22, with Ruth. The two students from Nanyang Polytechnic make up half of Team Yuuy, which came up with Singapore's newest social robot. Ruth is designed to act like a human being and intended to eventual
Mr Francis Swee, 20 (left), and Mr Yu Zhigang, 22, with Ruth. The two students from Nanyang Polytechnic make up half of Team Yuuy, which came up with Singapore's newest social robot. Ruth is designed to act like a human being and intended to eventually be able to help elderly people living alone.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Her name is Ruth.

Not a single drop of blood runs through her veins, yet she blushes when she looks at you.

She cannot feel, yet she smiles when you look happy, and gets worried when you look sad. "You look stressed," she will say.

She is Singapore's newest social robot, made to act like a human being and built completely from scratch by four students from Nanyang Polytechnic who call themselves Team Yuuy.

Making use of an advanced vision sensor and a camera, the team gave her the ability to recognise people's faces and read their expressions.

Several motors around her body allows her to move her head and arms, and even blink her eyes.

And her brain - powered by a mini-Windows PC and configured using various Microsoft technologies - allows her to recognise speech and reciprocate with appropriate verbal answers.

Ruth's intelligence and sensitivity won over judges at this year's Microsoft Imagine Cup Singapore 2016 Finals in April. They crowned Team Yuuy champions of the World Citizenship category.

Two weeks ago, the team and Ruth went head to head with 12 other teams from around the world, in the World Citizenship category at this year's Imagine Cup World Finals at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, United States.

Teams were encouraged to identify a problem in the world and to come up with a solution.

While the Singapore team did not win, they are confident that Ruth will eventually be able to help elderly people living alone.

They had designed her to keep seniors living alone happy and safe, a growing challenge in ageing communities in countries like Singapore, Japan and China.

By 2030, 900,000 people in Singapore will be aged 65 and over, an increase from 11.8 per cent of the population last year to 20 per cent.

The results of a study by researchers from the National University of Singapore released last year showed that elderly Singaporeans who lived alone are 1.7 times as likely to die prematurely.

Researchers said this was likely due to the lack or loss of a spouse, who could have helped to monitor health conditions and ensure that they take their medication and keep medical appointments.

The research also found that elderly people who lived alone are about twice as likely to suffer depression and loneliness.

"We want Ruth to be a friend to the elderly living alone by talking to them, telling jokes when the elderly person seems down, and to even remind them to take their medication," said Mr Yu Zhigang, 22, a member of Team Yuuy.

The white-and-yellow robot weighs around 5kg and cost close to $10,000 to develop.

It has already been tested on two seniors living alone, who found her easy to interact with due to her non-threatening appearance.

Dr Edwin Foo, the team's supervisor and a senior lecturer at the School of Engineering at Nanyang Polytechnic, said the team will next look at giving Ruth wheels as legs to allow her to move around, and explore how she can be used to detect falls among seniors living at home.

Samantha Boh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2016, with the headline 'This social robot is a boon to seniors living alone'. Print Edition | Subscribe