Assistive robotics, the new challenge

September 2009

Robotic handRobotics is a multidisciplinary science that is now really taking off, says Antonio Espingardeiro.

We can understand robots as artefacts that are programmable for executing tasks for humans. Currently, with the rapid advances in software and micro-electronics, robots are starting to gain a new status in our lives. These machines are already being used in many contexts but I want to talk more specifically about health care applications.

One of the biggest issues in robotics is the safety of humans during their interactions with machines. One area with big potential is called personal assistive robotics. A socially assistive robot could, for example, tirelessly encourage a stroke patient to do rehabilitation exercises. It might walk next to someone with dementia, giving directions to help navigate the hallways of an assisted-living facility while chatting companionably, or it could be a non-threatening catalyst to teach children with autism how to interact with humans.

Research on such machines is in its earliest stages, with relatively few scientists involved and funding scarce. Roboticists (people who design robots) must firstly work with medical doctors, clinicians and potential users in order to understand the set of requirements and ethics to develop these technologies. Only after some solid ethical approvals by international bodies can we build expensive prototypes for trials to test the technology on real users and search for some commercial viability.

CosmoBot is an example of an assistive robot developed for helping children with disabilities. A successful case study of human-robot interaction is six-year-old Libby, an autistic child who couldn’t imitate even the most basic actions of children of her age. After several weeks of playing with CosmoBot, she was mirroring its motions as it led her through a game of raising her arms, patting her head and clapping.

‘Her mother and the professionals who saw this were in tears,’ says Carole Samango Sprouse, Director of the Neurodevelopmental Diagnostic Center for Young Children at George Washington University. ‘It was incredibly encouraging to see how the robot, through repetition and predictable behaviour, was successful in getting the child to perform the motions she had seen adults doing for years.’

Further research like this is needed in order to prove that robots can have a positive therapeutic effect on humans and I’m hoping that the National Institute of Health will eventually approve more funding for these preclinical studies.

The aging population

Another phenomenon that needs high attention from governments is the irreversible aging of population worldwide. Martha E. Pollack, Dean and Professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, says that the number of young adults for every older adult is decreasing dramatically, and we’ve never before seen these percentages of people over 85. In the next few years we should expect a big increase of elderly people and a shortage of personnel to take care of them. This represents a big opportunity for robotics technology for machines that could provide continuous supervision of people and personal entertainers.

The future of human-robot interaction looks tempting but it is also extremely delicate since we cannot fall into the error of trading totally the human contact of clinicians and professionals of the sector for the interaction of machines. We definitely need hybrid approaches where patients are in contact with both humans and robots.

Japanese scientists are already working on robots that can keep an eye on elderly people and that can advise hospitals and relatives if something goes wrong. Robots that can wash and clean people are also being commercialised and can provide an alternative help for patients in hospitals. By using these technological artefacts it is becoming possible to free some of the nursing personnel to focus on higher priority activities.

Robotics has huge potential for the future. However we must understand the key areas where humans are good and the activities where robots can perform better. This is essential for mapping the financial investments for the technological progress over the next few years.

Finally I want readers to understand that the objective of robotics is not to substitute for humans. Being human is being creatively special and robots could help to enhance that. The challenge is to create machines that are acceptable to the public and that can provide us with a better quality of life.

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