Caring computers set to respond to human emotions in dementia project

Irish-led SenseCare research, funded by the EU, will make use of ‘affective computing’

Scientists are teaching computers how to recognise and respond to human emotions as a way to improve the lives of people with dementia. Computers that learn from experience are central to a project that aims to improve the quality of life and care for those suffering from various forms of dementia.

The four-year €504,000 EU-funded project, led by Cork Institute of Technology in partnership with Ulster University, was announced yesterday. There are also industry and academic partners in Spain and Germany.

Called SenseCare (or Sensor Enabled Affective Computing for Enhancing Medical Care), it will use applied psychology to monitor patients with dementia, said Dr Dirk Pesch of Cork IT.

There is a growing need for such a system. More than 68,000 people on the island of Ireland are living with dementia, the institute said. This number will continue to rise, with an estimated healthcare cost of up to €250 billion across Europe by 2030.


SenseCare is based on using “affective computing”, a blend of computer science, psychology, and cognitive science that helps the computer to interpret human behaviour and interact with the patient. Affective computing is a major research theme for the EU’s Horizon 2020 budget and includes elements such as the development of emotional robotics and robot companions.

“It is a way to make a machine have feelings so the machine understands people better,” said Alfie Keary, a PhD candidate at Cork IT, who is working on the project.

There is a wide range of off-the-shelf sensors and video systems being used to capture affective data, but the SenseCare project wants to go much further. It will serve as a platform to handle all the incoming data from voice and face recognition systems, wearable sensors and health data such as heart rate or blood pressure.

Much of this technology is already available, but the platform will house the computer intelligence and learning when this is fully developed.

About 20 per cent of the project depends on hardware, but 80 per cent is software-based, and this is where the computer intelligence and the ability to deliver “full emotional analytics” lies.

The platform will be open for others to build technologies, such as companion robots, and add these to the care system.

The research in Cork will be centred at the Nimbus Centre for Embedded Systems Research, where Dr Pesch is director. The Nimbus research development manager, Dr Kieran Delaney, is the SenseCare project manager.

The system will be able to detect the emotional states of patients and will provide information needed by medical staff to decide the best treatment options.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.