The International Robot Exhibition, held in Tokyo last week, demonstrated some of the incredible latest developments in the futuristic world of robotics. Along with the traditional industrial robots, that have been around for years, were robots for painting nails, ‘snake’ robots for search and rescue missions and an increasing number of robots which can care for disabled or elderly people. In recent years, there has been a trend towards focusing on these assistive robots within the robotics industry, partially led by the aging population in Japan – home of robotics.
The idea of robots being able to aid the less able, replacing or assisting carers, is an exciting one and not as far from reality as you may think. OK, we’re not into I, Robot levels of advancement yet but there’s nothing to say we won’t get there reasonably soon. Highly qualified experts foresee the role of carer as an important element in our robotic future.
Lord Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, recently said: “I think robots have two very different roles. The first is to operate in locations that humans can’t reach, such as the aftermaths of accidents in mines, oil-rigs and nuclear power stations. The second, also deeply unglamorous, is to help elderly or disabled people with everyday life: tying shoelaces, cutting toenails and suchlike.” ‘Deeply unglamorous’ sounds like a harsh way to describe being a carer but it is accurate when you think robots could feasibly be astronauts or superheroes.
Today’s robots are still some way off being technologically advanced enough to carry out even those more ‘unglamorous’ role. Daniel Wolpert, Royal Research Society Professor in the Department of Engineering, Cambridge University, puts matters into perspective saying that “while computers can now beat grandmasters at chess, there is currently no robot that can match the dexterity of a five-year-old child. The field of robotics is similar to where computers were in the 1960s – expensive machines used in simple, repetitive industrial processes.” However, he goes on to say that “modern day robotics is changing that. Robots are likely to become as ubiquitous as the smartphone computers we all carry – from microscopic robotics for healthcare and fabrication to human-size robots to take on our everyday tasks or even act as companions.”
So, it is very possible to conceive of a new age of disability, in which cognitive, autonomous, humanoid robots (i.e. robots, in the shape of humans, who can think and act for themselves) assist the less able. Already, software which allows machines to operate without needing user control is well into the process of development. A Spanish research group called Cognitive Robots have spent 15 years designing a computer ‘brain’ that can replicate the way humans think and represent the world. So far they have produced a commercial cleaning vehicle known as the CRB100 which capable of operating without user control, but their long term aim, towards the automation of any commercial vehicle, does not appear out of reach. So they’ve got the cognitive side of things down but it’s still a bit limited and far from our humanoid.
Paul Doyle, the Assistive Technology Project Development Manager at Hereward College, which has pupils with a range of disabilities, is heavily involved with robots which are active already but on the other end of the spectrum. Rather than being able to think but not able to do much to help the less able, the robots he’s seen are entirely intended for that cause. He told Disability Now of a robotic arm that had had a dramatic impact on his students:“It was an arm that attached to wheelchairs. It was useful for individuals with limited dexterity. It could be operated by a chin joystick and it could be operated by someone with head switches as well. People can feed themselves with it, pick things out of the dishwasher, prepare meals and use a computer.”
However, Doyle was frustrated by what he saw as his students missing out on robot technology that could have a dramatic impact on their lives. He says that one reason for the absence of this sort of technology in disabled people’s lives is manufacturers’ reluctance to produce for the mass market until they have come up with the definitive product. That might not seem too controversial a thing to do but Doyle would rather see the manufacturers work alongside less able people to help develop the robots.
One robot that has been produced is Care-O-Bot – an extraordinary German robot which can operate autonomously and safely to support humans in domestic environments. With its gripper arm, tray and autonomous ability to find things, the Care-O-Bot can carry out simple fetch and carry tasks, entertain and communicate using its touch screen and contact emergency support if needed. It is, however, still limited in its application, which needs to be tailored specifically to the building in which it operates. On top of that, it’s hard to imagine anyone would consider this robot to be available to a ‘mass’ market since it costs a whopping $280,000 to buy one.
If you don’t have over a quarter million dollars lying around for a Care-O-Bot, which is still limited in what it can do, experts expect it will be another 30 or 40 years before a walking talking robot is able to take the place of a full-time PA. Sometimes slow developments suddenly explode into life but with robots there is a lot to do before they can be produced for everyday use. Eric Berger, co-director of the Personal Robotics Program at Willow Garage, believes that “that day’s getting closer, still a long way off”. He’s helped to produce the PR2 robot which is able to do all sorts of things that suggest one day robots could even be companions as well as assistants , like fetch a beer or play pool. The only problem with that is that it takes 5 days to set PR2 up to play pool and then it gets every single shot in. Probably not a lot of fun.
The most life like, and advance humanoid robot, is Honda’s Asimo. The two legged robot, stands at 51 inches tall and has been in development since 1986. With proper hands and legs it has the ability to carry a tray, turn on a light switch, shake hands or open a door. On top of that, it can interpret visual expressions and gestures! The Asimo ‘performs’ at Disneyland in California to entertain and educate audiences. The long term plan is for ASIMO to be an assistive robot but there are currently no plans to introduce it onto the market as it is not yet ready for that.
Coming full circle, the NAO Robot was one of the stars of the show at the International Robot Exhibition last week. NAO is almost like a miniature version of the Asimo at 23 inches tall with the ability to walk on varying surfaces, track and recognize faces and objects, express emotions and react to touch. It can even speak 19 languages but the most impressive thing about it, to us, is that it can do the Gangnam Style dance! The robot has a price tag of between $4,000 and $16,000, depending on its features and is only available to educational and research institutions. It probably won’t be able to help less able people much because of its size but it’s not unfair to suggest that if it can be enlarged, it could be beneficial in the future.
So, we can see that there is loads of new technology out there in the world of robotics. Not only does it not seem impossible that, in the near future, robots will be used as a way to support the less able – it now seems likely! A new age of disability is potentially just around the corner and it could well be robots who usher it in.