World Science Festival: The Future of Computerized Companions

Bandit the robotMatarić with an earlier version of Bandit.

Our society is getting older. The Administration on Aging projects that by 2030 there will be about 72.1 million Americans 65 or older, more than twice the number of seniors there were in 2000. While seniors represented 12.4 percent of the U.S. population in 2000, that number is expected to reach 19 percent by 2030.

There may not be enough people to take care of them. And that may be OK. That’s because researchers are developing robots that can serve as caretakers. That kind of technology is still years away, but robots are currently assisting children and stroke patients.

A World Science Festival event on Friday focused on the idea of robot caretakers. At the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, attendees watched an advance screening of Robot and Frank, the winner of a feature film prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The film stars Frank Langella as an elderly ex-jewel thief whose son gives him a robot caretaker. Following the screening, two leading roboticists talked about the future of the field.

Maja Matarić develops socially assistive robots at the University of Southern California. She showed video clips of a robot doing exercises with a stroke patient and described how the robot was able to see the patient’s movements and offer encouragement as they went along. Matarić noted that it is—or will be—more feasible to have a robot, as opposed to a human, available 24/7.

Matarić also works with seniors with Alzheimer’s disease as well as children with autism. She has found that children are often more at ease with a robot than they are with people. For example, if a child is not making eye contact with the robot, the robot can detect this and encourage the child to do so.

Matarić stressed the importance of the robot’s physical appearance. She wants the robots to have some human qualities but not too many. She doesn’t want it to be viewed as “just a machine,” but if it’s too human-like it can spawn unrealistic expectations about its abilities or—in the case of children with autism—intimidate those it is supposed to help.

Dennis Hong, who specializes in autonomous robot locomotion at Virginia Tech, also noted the importance of the robot’s size and shape. He said engineers have to take hints from biology when designing robots. Even if the robots are simply going to be doing physical tasks like taking out the garbage or doing the dishes, it is important they have some human traits. Door knobs, sinks, and staircases were designed to be navigated by humans. If we want robots to be able to function in our environment, they need a design that allows them to perform tasks like opening doors and climbing stairs.

Darwin the robotHong and Darwin.

Certain specs are important even for Matarić’s robots, which require more social skills than physical tools. She found that putting a camera in the back of a robot’s head so it could monitor and respond to a person even when it’s not looking directly at the person caused more harm than good. “It freaked people out,” Matarić said.

Both guests brought robots to the presentation. Matarić brought Bandit, a child-sized robot with expressive eyebrows, all the way from California. Hong brought Darwin, a foot-tall robot from Virginia Tech that must have been nervous in front of the New York crowd—it was supposed to show off its soccer moves but it couldn’t locate the ball. Hong’s robots will have to perform better under pressure if they are going to achieve his goal: a team of robots beating the winning team from the 2050 World Cup.

None of the robots on display at the event were as advanced as the one in the movie. In addition to its physical capabilities, it connected emotionally with Langella’s character, who suffered from dementia. The film is set in “the near future,” and with the advances being made in the robotics field, that may be closer than we think.

–Andrew Kahn

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