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Virtual help, but the benefits will be real

Supported by a four-year, $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Northeastern University computer scientist Timothy Bickmore will expand his work on computer-animated characters and robots, developing virtual helpers to aid elderly users living alone with exercising, healthy eating and socializing.

The animated helpers would use hand gestures, facial expressions, body posture and synthesized speech to make long-term social-emotional connections with their human companions.

“The artificial companions will provide friendship and help users maintain human relationships by encouraging them to go out, meet people and keep social networks,” said Bickmore, assistant professor of computer and information science in Northeastern’s College of Computer and Information Science. He noted that elderly people who live in extreme isolation have three times the chance of dying over a five-year period compared to those who live active lives.

The innovative project is a continuation of an eight-year study on the efficacy of virtual health counselors, in which Bickmore designed computer-animated exercise coaches that motivate geriatrics patients to do more walking.

Bickmore says artificial companions could play an increased role in the lives of the elderly over the next two decades, when the number of adults over the age of 65 is expected to double and the number of human caregivers is expected to decrease.

Artificial companions wouldn’t replace human caregivers, but would instead “provide support for those who don’t have it,” said Bickmore, who founded the Relational Agents Group, a circle of researchers who study how animated characters may improve the lives of their human users.

Over the next two years, he’ll conduct focus groups and ethnographic studies on the lifestyles of elderly people who live in an apartment complex in Roxbury to get a better idea of how to design the perfect virtual companion. The final two years of the grant will be spent analyzing the relationship between elderly users and the live-in virtual helper.

Bickmore’s work is one example of how Northeastern faculty members pursue interdisciplinary, use-inspired research that turns discoveries into solutions, with a focus on global challenges in health, security and sustainability.

Co-principal investigators on the grant include computer science professors Charles Rich and Candice Sidner of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Rebecca Silliman, director of Health Services Research for the geriatrics section at Boston Medical Center, is a consultant on the project.

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