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.