National Post: Meet Ludwig: a boyish robot that can analyse dementia patients by talking with them

Dr. Frank Rudzicz built a robot five years ago. It was five feet tall, and it had a bulky white case, like an early iPod. It followed Alzheimer’s disease and dementia patients around their home, and instructed them to do basic tasks. But it couldn’t listen to them.

Fixing that limitation was the idea behind Rudzicz’s latest project: a two-foot robot named Ludwig, billed as an innovative means of caring for the cognitively impaired.

Ludwig looks like a boy. His voice is high-pitched. He has brown, tousled hair. And he can speak and interact with dementia patients, asking them questions, considering their answers and reporting back to caregivers on their condition.

The robot was revealed Tuesday at One Kenton Place, a long-term care home in north Toronto, where it will be tested in a trial phase. Rudzicz, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Toronto, says his robot is the first to truly be able to converse with dementia patients. “Never (before) has there really been back-and-forth communication,” he said.

Here are five more things to know about Ludwig.

The idea

Ludwig’s ultimate purpose is to ease the burden on caregivers. When put into practice, the robot stands in front of a patient, displays a picture on a screen and asks the patient to describe what they see. From there, Ludwig logs his own interpretations about the patient’s condition: how engaged they are in conversation, whether they seem happy or anxious, how they’re acting compared to previous exchanges, and so on. “How people construct sentences, what words they choose to use, and even very microscopic fluctuations in their voice are very indicative of changes to their cognition,” Rudzicz said.

The technology

Ludwig has three gadgets to record audio and video from conversations: microphones in his ears, a camera in his eyes and a sensor embedded in his feet. He tracks the patient’s stare, their body movement, their intonation and their choice of words. ”It waits for you to talk, and when it figures out you’ve stopped talking, it sends the audio to speech-recognition (technology),” which allows the robot to assess the patient’s cognitive health, Rudzicz said. Ludwig cost $3,000 to build, and he understands English and French.

The significance

Around 564,000 Canadians have some form of dementia, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada — a figure expected to rise to 937,000 in the next 15 years. The chance of a person contracting dementia, the society says, doubles every five years after their 65th birthday. And while memory is typically the first function to be affected, Rudzicz said, language skills often follow. “There’s a very clear link between someone’s expressive ability with language and the progress of Alzheimer’s disease, generally,” he said. “People who work with individuals with Alzheimer’s disease … could use a little bit of extra help, which is what we’re trying to build.”

The launch site

The robot will be piloted at One Kenton Place starting next month. The idea is that Ludwig will be placed in a common room — alongside a TV, cards and other social attractions — so that residents can approach him on their own for casual conversation. “Based on (Ludwig’s) analysis, we can tailor-make and customize the care the individual receives,” said Isaac Weinroth, One Kenton’s executive director. “We can look for subtle cues, subtle changes that on a day-to-day basis we might not see — things like gaps between words, changes in the use of verbs and the language that’s used.”

The next steps

Ludwig took a year to build, and from here, a few more questions need to be answered. One is regulatory — whether or not it should be classified as a medical device. Rudzicz said he hopes to refine the bot’s technical capacity: how well it chooses its reply to a patient’s answer, for instance, based on its assessment of the patient’s condition. And some debate has also festered over the name. Ludwig will not necessarily be the bot’s final moniker, Rudzicz said, despite his fondness for the namesake: Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who theorized extensively about language and the meaning of words.

Byline: Nick Faris, National Post