Like many kids, Frank Rudzicz played with robots. Now, he does it for a living.
Dr. Rudzicz' interest in artificial intelligence has propelled his career into a niche area of research that uses robotics and speech recognition technology to improve the quality of life for individuals with cognitive or physical disabilities.
"I've been interested in artificial intelligence and robotics since I was a kid, says Dr. Rudzicz, a scientist at Toronto Rehabilitation Institute-UHN. "I'd watch Star Wars and see something like R2D2 and get so excited by it.
"It really grabbed me."
Dr. Rudzicz' latest research achievement is Ludwig, a friendly, two-foot tall robot designed to interact with patients with Alzheimer's disease or dementia and gather information on their language, mood and cognition. The technology is able to detect even the smallest nuances in speech and vocal patterns that may help medical decision makers assess and navigate a patient's health care plan.
Robotics and healthcare
Dr. Rudzicz' interest in robotics as a child was encouraged by his father, an employee of General Electric, who frequently took his son with him to work to show him the massive robots the company worked on.
"I saw that these sci-fi robots you see in movies were actually being developed," he recalls. "It was really amazing."
During his post-secondary education, Dr. Rudzicz completed an internship with a speech recognition company, further perpetuating his interest in the field of computer science.
It was his Bachelor's degree in Computational Linguistics which, "really awakened that child-like dream of building robots. It put everything together for me to pursue artificial intelligence."
Dr. Rudzicz contemplated how to apply his interest in artificial intelligence, and two separate experiences carved his path into health care.
The first: while pursuing his PhD in Computer Science at the University of Toronto (U of T), Dr. Rudzicz learned of companies in the city developing technologies to help people with disabilities communicate.
"I suddenly learned about all these challenges that exist in medicine that I didn't know about as a computer scientist," he says. "It opened my eyes to the work being done in computer science that actually benefit real people outside the lab."
The second experience was watching three of his grandparents experience various degrees of cognitive decline as they aged. Seeing the disappointment and frustration this caused his grandparents and parents, he was inspired to create a technology that would engage patients with dementia, and ease the burden of data-gathering on health care providers.
Developed by Dr. Rudzicz and his team of researchers at the U of T, Ludwig is named after philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who studied language and how miscommunication occurs. The team thought this little robot's focus on identifying miscommunication in humans made him a perfect candidate for the name.
"Previous gains in the field of artificial intelligence have enabled robots before Ludwig to follow individuals around their home and give them instructions," explains Dr. Rudzicz.
This type of advanced technology has been used for home-based care for adults, to help people live more independently in their homes and communities.
"We were doing a lot of similar research, and realized we needed the person interacting with the technology to talk a lot more to get into their language and cognition capabilities," he says. "So we had to develop a different means of interaction by creating a smaller, less imposing robot like Ludwig, who looks more like a child."
The future of robotics
Ludwig is in a constant state of development and Dr. Rudzicz and his team are exploring several advancements in the technology, for example how the robot can sense an individual's cognitive state based on the way they speak, making Ludwig a more free-flowing conversationalist, and how the technology may be able to listen to speech and transcribe the audio into text.
Dr. Rudzicz envisions Ludwig in a retirement home setting, for example a recreation or games area, where he can interact with elderly patients and gather data to provide medical professionals with information for accurate assessments.
"Sometimes it's emotionally difficult for caregivers to manage conversations with dementia patients, so Ludwig can lightly relieve that burden by always being inquisitive, curious, and ready to play," he says.
While Ludwig is not meant to replace the role of nurses, physicians or caregivers, the robot's ability to gather information and engage in conversation with patients may free up healthcare providers to focus on other areas of care.
On the future of robotics in health care, Dr. Rudzicz says that with an aging population, this will be a very important area of development.
"It's a fact that people are getting older, and strokes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other diseases present very important issues, both for individuals in terms of emotional management, and also for our whole society in terms of our health care system," explains Dr. Rudzicz.
"I'm really looking forward to the advancements coming in the future of health care robotics," says Dr. Rudzicz.