The white-colored humanoid “Garmi” looks very much like a typical robot – it stands on a platform with wheels and is equipped with a black screen with two blue circles attached for eyes.
But retired German doctor Günter Steinebach, 78, said: “For me, this robot is a dream.”
Garmi is not only able to diagnose patients, but also to care for and treat them. Or at least that’s the plan.
Garmi is a product of a new sector called geriatronics, a discipline that unlocks advanced technologies such as robotics, IT and 3D technology for geriatrics, gerontology and nursing.
About a dozen scientists built Garmi with the help of medical professionals like Steinebach at the Munich Institute for Robotics and Machine Intelligence.
The Institute of the Technical University of Munich has located its department specializing in geriatronics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a ski resort with one of the highest proportions of older people in Germany.
Europe’s most populous country is itself one of the fastest aging societies in the world.
With the rapidly growing number of people in need of care and an estimated 670,000 vacancies in Germany by 2050, researchers are working flat out to find robots that can take over some of the tasks performed by nurses, orderlies and doctors today.
“Today we have ATMs where we can withdraw cash. We can imagine that one day, following the same model, people will be able to complete their medical examination in some kind of technology center,” said Abdeldjallil Naceri, 43, the chief scientist of the lab.
Doctors could then evaluate the results of the robot’s diagnostics remotely, which could be especially valuable for people in remote communities.
Alternatively, the machine could provide a more personalized service at home or in a nursing home – serving meals, opening a bottle of water, calling for help in the event of a fall, or organizing a video call with family and friends.
– ‘We have to get there’ –
In the Garmisch laboratory, Steinebach sat down at a table equipped with three screens and a joystick to test the robot’s progress.
At the other end of the room, a researcher designated as a test model takes his place in front of Garmi, who positions a stethoscope on his chest – an action that Steinebach controls remotely via a joystick.
Medical data appears instantly on the doctor’s screen.
“Imagine if I had that in my old practice,” Steinebach said while flexing the joystick.
In addition to the retired doctor, other medical professionals also visit the laboratory regularly to contribute their ideas and feedback on the robot.
“It’s like a three-year-old kid. We have to teach him everything,” said Naceri.
It’s unclear when Garmi might be ready on a commercial scale.
But Naceri is convinced that “we have to go there, the statistics show that it is urgent”.
“By 2030, we need to be able to integrate this type of technology into our society.”
– Confidence question –
And if one day it is actually used, the residents of the Sankt Vinzenz retirement home in Garmisch, a partner of the project, will probably see Garmi whizzing through the corridors.
Just thinking about it made Mrs. Rohrer, a 74-year-old resident, smile.
“There are things a robot can do, like serve a drink or bring food,” she said while Eva Pioskowik, the home’s director, did her nails.
Pioskowik, who struggles with staff shortages on a daily basis, said she did not expect the robot to take the place of health workers.
“But it might allow our staff to spend a little more time with residents,” she said.
For the Naceri team, one of the biggest challenges is not technological, medical or financial.
Rather, it remains to be seen whether most patients will accept the robot.
“You have to trust the robot,” he said. “They need to be able to use it the way we use a smartphone today.”