Robots with a human touch

Panasonic’s HOSPI is used by hospitals in Japan and Singapore. The product is designed to deliver fragile and bulky medicine, medical specimens and patients’ case notes. Panasonic’s HOSPI is used by hospitals in Japan and Singapore. The product is designed to deliver fragile and bulky medicine, medical specimens and patients’ case notes.

Next generation of dynamic devices helps alleviate loneliness, increase communication and assist seniors
with everyday chores

By Eric Taub

Over a decade ago, I sat in a park in Hollywood, Calif., and beheld an incredible sight: grown men and women fawning over a pack of friendly, small, slowly moving dogs. They laughed when their dogs wagged their tails, and cooed when they cuddled up to them.

What was incredible was that these were not ordinary dogs; they were mechanical ones, robots made by Sony, called Aibo. And their owners loved and cared for them just the same as if they were fur and blood.

The now-defunct Aibo had a cult following. I was in Hollywood at the time to chronicle the obsession that its collectors felt, for a piece I was writing for The New York Times. 

“I get very sad when one of my dogs gets ill,” said one of the Aibo owners at the time. When his robotic dog’s head stopped moving, “I felt bad. I truly felt grief. I know it sounds weird.” 

It does sound weird, but it’s a phenomenon that robot researchers have discovered: When you create a machine that simulates in various ways human movement or interaction, people tend to relate to that device as if it is human.

“We personify any object that talks back,” notes Tom Green, editor in chief of Robotics Business Review. “It’s freaky, but it’s understandable.”


Robots for the new age

Now, researchers, designers, and engineers around the world are using that knowledge to engage people for whom human contact may be lacking — and many of those people are the elderly. 

They’re doing so by creating a generation of robots and avatars — talking, friendly faces displayed on a tablet — both of which are designed to alleviate loneliness, increase communication, and help people with everyday chores.

If robots bring to mind C-3PO, the droid of “Star Wars” fame, you’ll need to reconsider. Robots about to hit the market include ones that are independently mobile using built-in wheels, as well as others that just sit in one place and make nice. At least one has crude arms and hands while others have none. 

Tablets are typically incorporated as a way to input information. And crude, cartoon-like avatar faces give users the sense that they’re interacting with a living thing, not a collection of silicon chips.

Most of the work on robots is being done outside the United States, primarily in Japan and Korea. For several years, Panasonic has offered HOSPI, its “autonomous delivery robot” sporting a happy face, to hospitals in Japan and Singapore. 

Designed to ease staff obligations, HOSPI delivers fragile and bulky medicine, medical specimens and patients’ case notes at any time of the day. Sensors help it avoid hitting someone in its path. New hospital routes can be programmed in advance, and the robot’s whereabouts are continually tracked in a control center.

Panasonic also has developed a Hair Washing Robot that washes, rinses, and dries hair without human intervention. The robot is only available in Japan.


Active R&D pipeline

Few robot products are marketed today; many launches are expected later this year or in 2017. Yet industry observers predict that the next few years will see a slew of new robots introduced to the market.

Developers see a range of constituencies for their robots, including the elderly — those aging in place as well as residents of assisted living homes.

But for robots to interest the elderly, they need to contain certain characteristics. In a recent study conducted by Penn State University, elderly individuals indicated that they’d like robots to act as a companion in order to assist and entertain them. But if the robot was too autonomous and made its own decisions, it would be rejected.

“When interfaces are designed to be almost humanlike in their autonomy, seniors may react to them with fear, skepticism and other negative emotions,” wrote S. Shyam Sundar, co-director of Penn State’s Media Effects Research Laboratory.

All the robots on the drawing board rely on spoken or typed human commands to function. They have names too clever by half.  

Jibo, Pepper, Savioke and others promise to enable shut-ins to communicate with family members; self-driving models will follow the elderly person around the house, carry small items for those unable to do so, remind people to take their medications, entertain by playing music, sense one’s emotional mood, read to them, and generally be a substitute companion, much the way the Aibo robotic dogs have been for many.

With the proper, non-threatening face, robots can calm patients and make them more agreeable. That’s why Norrie Daroga has concentrated his work on developing not robots, but a welcoming visage, an avatar “everyperson” that can be displayed on a tablet and help comfort an individual. 

Daroga’s company, IDAvatars, will soon offer technology that can sense an individual’s emotional state, and then have the avatar offer responses designed to put someone at ease. 

The avatar is programmed to ask the user appropriate health questions, and convey the answers to a healthcare provider. By monitoring the pitch of the respondent’s voice, the avatar can sense one’s mood and alter its delivery appropriately. 

IDAvatar also learns about an individual. When it is told, for example, that the user has a dog, it will begin to ask that person how the dog is doing.

To encourage patient response, the American version of the prod-uct uses an English accent, as Daroga learned that people are less critical of the way someone speaks if that voice is in a foreign style.


Beam me up, Scotty

Among robots, one of the first available is Beam from Suitable Technologies. On the market for five years, Beam is less a robot than a tablet on wheels. But to describe it as such does not indicate its transformative nature, any more than describing a word processor as a typewriter with a screen does it justice.

Beam moves around rooms when directed to do so by an individual sitting in front of the beam web portal in a remote location. Thanks to various sensors, Beam can avoid objects and can also park itself into its own charging station. 

The Beam robot is currently used to help companies conduct remote meetings. A conference table typically includes live people sitting at it, as well as several Beams scattered around, beaming the faces of the remote participants to others.

Beam parent company Suitable Technologies sees future market potential through bundling its product with sensor-based solutions. For example, if it was connected to a fall detection pendant, Beam could notify caregivers whenever a tumble occurred.

Beam executives will offer its Beam Plus to the assisted living and senior markets sometime this year, says Tom Wyatt, the company’s vice president of sales. 

“There’s definitely a case to use Beam to help alleviate loneliness,” he says. “When it’s difficult for a family to visit, Beam could supplement real visits.” 

Because a caregiver in a remote location initiates the connection, the elderly participant does not have to know how to set up a call using Skype or another tool. 


Jibo takes center stage

The robot garnering the most attention today is Jibo, described as “the world’s first social robot for the home.” Not yet on the market, Jibo resembles a cute house fan with a movable head. 

Expected to be 11 inches tall and weigh about five pounds, Jibo uses Wi-Fi connectivity and cloud storage to interact with its user. 

Just as the first iPhone came with limited capabilities when launched, Jibo will launch with a core group of features, such as storytelling, note taking and time telling. Developers will be able to write new applications for
the device.

Eventually, Jibo claims it will be able to recognize different faces and react appropriately to each one, research and read recipes, proactively remind the user of tasks (such as medicine adherence), and connect to others using the device’s built-in camera and microphone.

The company behind Jibo has raised over $25 million in seed funding, and was one of the most successful tech campaigns on Kickstarter in 2014. It expects to launch Jibo this April or May. Prior to launch, Jibo costs $749. (Using a global crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter helps artists, musicians, filmmakers, designers, and other creators find the resources and support they need to turn their ideas into reality.)

But even when it does become available, the elderly market is just one of many that the company will target. 

Tandy Trower, a former senor Microsoft executive who finished his career there heading up a robotics team, hopes to create a market targeting the elderly.


Robbie under wraps

Trower’s company, HoAloha Robotics, is working on a companion robot strictly for seniors, one that will be autonomously mobile and easy to use.

Still in development and currently code-named “Robbie,” Trower is tight-lipped as to many of its capabilities. But he understands that making a robot that will appeal to the elderly is considerably more difficult than creating one for the tech-savvy young.

One obvious problem: the lack of Wi-Fi in many older individuals’ homes and assisted living residences. 

“The challenge for us is that much information comes from the cloud. Our interactive technologies, such as medication adherence, will need to run locally,” he says. Other capabilities, such as weather updates and news, could be cached from the Internet and then stored on the robot.

Able to move on its own, Robbie can also carry up to about two pounds, enabling it to bring seniors their medications, food or a sewing project a resident may be working on. Robbie will have a full face as well as a separate tablet used to input information.

To attract the largest audience, the robot’s personality will be neither extroverted nor introverted. “Through interaction with it, we’ll adjust its personality,” says Trower. 

The current model uses a child’s voice, so that the user does not feel intimidated by it. Robbie is being thought of as the ultimate sidekick, like a Robin or Tonto, notes Trower.

Entirely self-funded, Trower expects to launch his robot by mid-2017. “The most important market for robots is the senior market,” points out Trower.

“We’re not looking to replace humans. We want to augment human interaction to make seniors more independent. But if there is no one else with whom to interact, there will always be our robot.”

Sony’s Aibo robotic dog may be dead, but a new generation of robots is about to be born that should provide even more substantial help and companionship to its owners.