Robots found a place on the assembly line years ago. Now they are seen as an answer to a demographic trend that is alarming the authorities: Statistics on both sides of the Atlantic show a growing proportion of people over 65 and a shrinking number of people to care for them as they age. For authorities responsible for coping with the deficit, the day when robots can help elderly people live independent lives at home can’t come soon enough. But the task of making robots helpful isn’t simple, and remote caregiving could be a mixed blessing.
The robot has to duplicate the complexities of human motion and genuinely help people – and it has to be affordable in a market not known for having cash to spare. And the isolating consequences of robotic care will have to be addressed.
uBOT-5 Helper Robot
The latest entrant among robots designed to enable elders cope at home, uBOT-5, is showing promise in all areas – except in the looks and charm department. The robot is the star of the ASSIST program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Laboratory for Perceptual Robotics. The facility specializes in new technologies for assisted living in residential environments. Potential ASSIST technologies are tested with the participation of social workers, the medical community and the family members of people in elder care facilities.
The ASSIST project description says BOT-5 can dial 911 in emergencies, remind its owner to take his or her medication and to lift some of the burden of household chores by fetching and carrying. It is programmed to perform household tasks requiring dexterity and to clean and shop. With raised outstretched arms, it can carry a load of 2.2 pounds.
Concerned family members are able to access the unit and visit elderly parents from any Internet connection. These virtual visitors are able to navigate around the home to look for Mom or Dad, who may not hear the ringing phone or may need help. Doctors need only make virtual visits.
UBOT-5’s design was inspired by human anatomy. An array of sensors acts as the robot’s eyes and ears, allowing it to recognize human activities, such as walking or sitting. It can also recognize an abnormal visual event, such as a fall. If the elder is unresponsive, the robot is designed to call 911, alert family and check his or her vital signs with a digital stethoscope and relay the information to the medical team en route.
Remote service providers can direct the elder to speak, smile or raise both hands.
UBOT-5 can push itself up to a vertical position if it falls over. It has a “spinal cord” and the equivalent of an inner ear to keep it balanced on its Segway-like wheels. The researchers point out that dynamically stable robots are well suited to environments designed for humans where both a high center of mass and a small footprint are often required. In the case of the uBot-5, which behaves much like an inverted pendulum, active stabilization becomes easier as the robot – and thus the center of mass – becomes taller. The uBOT-5 can also employ whole body postural control afforded by its dynamically stable configuration to generate greater pushing and pulling forces than are possible on an equivalent statically stable platform.
Five feet tall, weighing in at 245 pounds, Twendy-One is all sensors and cybernetic muscle. The soft and flexible speaking robot was developed by engineers at Waseda University in Japan. Shigeki Sugano, professor of mechanical engineering, led the team. Twendy-One has the strength and stability to lift an incapacitated person out of bed, yet the sensitivity – with 241 pressure sensors on each silicon hand – to handle a slice of toast or a straw.
One handicap all but guarantees this version of Twendy-One won’t be a home helper any time soon: It has just 15 minutes of battery life and its computer-laden back has a tendency to overheat after each use.
Twendy-One shares a handicap with its helper robot cousins – high cost. According to the Associated Press, which featured the interview with the professor, the robot has taken nearly seven years and a budget of several million dollars to integrate its features. “It’s the first robot in the world with this much system integration," he said. The professor said he hopes to develop a commercially viable robot that could help the elderly and maybe work in offices by 2015 – with a price tag of around US $200,000.
UBOT-5’s developers don’t give a figure, but it is unlikely to be small change.
Pearl, the Reminder Robot
Pearl, the reminder robot, has already cost its developers $100,000 and they have little to show for the money.
Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University teamed up to create Pearl as a mobile robotic assistant for the elderly. Dr. Jim Osborn, the Executive Director of the Robotics Institute, told the Ergonomics Report™ in May that the program is now defunct. The program suffered from the natural turnover of key computer scientists and a serious hard-drive crash. Despite the $100,000 investment in circuitry and hardware, the second-generation prototype Pearl couldn’t hear, talk, recall and react the way its creators envisioned.
But Pearl is instructive for what its developers tried to do. They classified it as a reminder robot that follows people around and cannot get lost. It was envisioned as a way to help elders cope with the forgetfulness that often robs them of the ability to live independently. They can forget where they were going and about necessities like visiting the bathroom, taking medicine, drinking and seeing the doctor.
Pearl’s other function was guiding elderly people through their environments. The robot was able to avoid objects in its path, but its pace – less than 20 inches a second – was slow on the human scale.
Had it been possible to continue the program, the future Pearl would have had the intelligence to monitor people and react to variations in behavior — to remind a person who hadn’t visited the bathroom in a long time. A person who hadn’t left the bathroom or moved from a chair would be asked to explain, and the future Pearl would have summoned help if there was no answer. The team envisioned replacing Pearl’s siderails with manipulating arms that could pick up and move things
Pearl was also being used to test ideas on easing the struggle with handles and doors for elderly people with arthritis.
A range of emergency conditions, such as certain types of heart failure, can be avoided with systematic data collection. Pearl, like uBOT-5, was designed to establish a telepresence so that many caregiver and doctor visits would become superfluous.
ASIMO won’t come for small change either. Developed by Honda engineers, the product of two decades of research, humanoid ASIMO is a world traveler and the star of the robot fraternity: It recently conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. ASIMO can run, walk on uneven slopes and surfaces, turn smoothly, climb stairs, and reach for and grasp objects. The robot can also comprehend and respond to simple voice commands, map its surroundings using camera eyes, register stationary objects and avoid moving obstacles as it progresses through its environment.
ASIMO 2008 isn’t designed with elders in mind, but its developers see moving future versions of ASIMO in that direction.
As the experts who have an eye on demographics suggest, human caregivers are a dwindling breed and robotic caring is the way of the future. But studies show that robotic home care can actually increase isolation: The better a helper robot functions, the less direct human contact its elderly owner will have. The raises the question of whether it is a benefit to elders to make family, caregiver and doctor visits superfluous.
The Pearl team acknowledges that a huge number of elderly people are forced to live alone, deprived of social contacts. Observing that isolation can lead to depression, the project team is explored whether robots can take over certain social functions. The team regarded Pearl’s telepresence features as social aids. The uBOT-5 team attaches that function to the robot’s LCD touchscreen monitor and webcam.
In Britain, which is facing the same demographic trend as North America – ever more elders and ever fewer carers – one expert sees ‘virtual friends’ as an answer to the loneliness and isolation. Speaking at a British Computer Society meeting in March 2007, Dr Kevin Doughty, deputy director of York University’s Centre for Usable Home Technology, said these could range from motion-activated lights to a fully-fledged robotic companion who could advise, interact and even entertain older people. The full report was published in the BCS Health Informatics Now magazine.
More radical solutions could involve hug suits that simulate physical contact, or perhaps computer generated friends, he suggested.
An extension of the hug suit concept is a robot with a program for hugs. But who would want a hug from UBOT-5, PEARL, Twendy-One or ASIMO? As the uBOT-5 creators say, there is no mistaking the robot for a person.
No one could regard the present group of robots for the elderly as companionable or even a friendly presence in a household. UBOT-5 is all arms, wheels, wires, nuts, bolts, with a TV screen instead of a face. PEARL, 4-feet tall, has eyes, eyebrows, a button mouth and a mouth full of flashing lights. She looks like a tin can with a waist, has siderails instead of arms and doesn’t yet hear, talk, recall and react. Twendy-One has orangutang arms and a face that resembles the alien movie character E.T.
Aiko and Jules — Charmers
It follows from the observations and studies on isolation that developing robots for the elderly to look more human and personable – more like a friend – could be as important as solving technical issues.
The descriptions of service robots from the developers suggest they are not thinking that far ahead. When and if they do, they will find the technology already in place to create huggable, personable, companionable and attractive robotic helpers. The Canadian Aiko and American Jules are so lifelike it takes a second glance to recognize them as robots. They have been exhibited at technology shows, and both can be visited virtually – Aiko on AikoProject.com and YouTube.com, and Jules on Gizmodo.com
Inventor Lu Trung created life-sized, shapely and feminine Aiko to charm. Not just a pretty face, Aiko can converse and can learn new facts from the conversation. “She” can read books, newspaper and handwriting, solve math problems and see color patterns. Though not designed as a service robot, Aiko has the ability to move around “her” environment, and deliver requested items, such as beverages. The robot also has the ability to differentiate between objects, detect familiar faces and activate its defense mode if the face isn’t recognized.
Jules, an animatronic puppet created by American robotics designer David Hanson, looks warm-blooded and has a winning personality. The robot’s camera eyes can track human faces and maintain eye contact. “He” can recognize faces and speech patterns speech. An advanced motion-control system regulates the robot’s walk and speech, and it is loaded with "conversational persona" software. All of the Hanson robots learn interact intelligently and intuitively.
Jules is made of Frubber™, the elastic polymer that makes realistic facial movement and speech possible while being stronger, more elastic and using only a fraction of the power required for existing materials. Frubber™ and Jules’ 62 face and neck muscles allow a vast range of facial expressions.
It doubtful anyone visiting Jules would disagree with the designer’s claim that the robot offers the highest physical functionality in the industry.
Aiko could be regarded as the princess of virtual friends, and Jules the prince. The question is whether the developers of service robots for the elderly will see charm and looks in their creations as their final frontier.
Sources: University of Massachusetts Amherst Laboratory for Perceptual Robotics; Dr. Jim Osborn; University of Pittsburgh/Carnegie Mellon University Nursebot project; Honda; AikoProject.com; YouTube.com; Gizmodo; British Computer Society
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2008-05-28.