Robots in care: roundup

It’s National Robotics Week in the USA, so it is an appropriate time to round up a whole series of care-related robot items.

It seems that a lot of robotics research is driven by the idea that the only way to cope with the ‘scary forthcoming crisis’ of older people numbers is to create robots to look after them. However, when you look at the robotics scene, you have to ask why one would want to spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, developing robots to do care tasks that can mostly be done much more cheaply and unobtrusively by existing technology. Perhaps it’s driven by the researchers’ urge to achieve mechanical immortality?

American care robots
European care robots
Japanese care robots
Do it yourself robotics?
Care robot ethics
Robots for ‘sexual care needs’?

American care robots

GeckoSystems CareBot: Based in Atlanta, GeckoSystems and has been in business for 12 years. Do watch the charming 2½ minute video. Its low-key website lists the benefits of its CareBot as:

  • Cost effective monitoring
  • Virtual visits
  • Automatic reminders
  • Companionship
  • Automatic emergency notification

University of Massachusetts Amherst uBOT-5: This is an item from 2008 and despite the director of UMass Amherst’s Laboratory for Perceptual Robotics saying “For the first time, robots are safe enough and inexpensive enough to do meaningful work in a residential environment” it is not clear if the uBOT-5 ever made it into actual production.

If robot-delivered personal care of the intimate sort is ever to be delivered (and if it can’t be, people will still need human carers) then sensitive dexterity at the hand and finger level will be essential. NASA and GM, focusing on the need for such dexterity in space, have made progress in that direction: NASA and GM develop ‘Robonaut2′ robot.

Telemedicine on wheels: InTouch Health’s Remote Presence device recently delivered its 100,000 clinical session, according to its website. Although the RP7 looks like, and is referred to as, a robot, I cannot see what it does other than carry around a computer and monitor. See this 6 minute video of it in use.

European care robots

I’ve had difficulties finding examples of European care robots. There are several possible explanations:

  • Companies and universities have been slow off the mark
  • Funding difficulties
  • More interest in industrial rather than domestic robots
  • Poor publicity
  • Scepticism about their usefulness

Even Robosoft, based in the French Basque country and the apparent European leader, went to New Orleans recently to launch its Kompaï robot “specifically designed to assist dependent persons at home. This robot can speak, understand what is said to it, find its way around the house and, with just a word, access all internet services.” A Cnet item, with a video that is frankly uninspiring – but do watch it – puts the Kompaï developments into context.

However, there is news of a new €3 million EU-funded research project with partners from Bulgaria, Italy, Germany, Spain and the UK “to develop a remotely-controlled, semi-autonomous [robot] to support elderly people…the care robot will be designed to act as a ‘shadow’ of its controller. For example, elderly parents can have a robot as a shadow of their children or carers. In this case, adult children or carers can help them remotely and physically with tasks such as getting up or going to bed, doing the laundry and setting up ICT equipment etc. as if the children or carers were resident in the house.” €3 Million for European Care Robot.

Japanese care robots

The Japanese have a reputation for being techno- and robo-philes (not yet in the sense of the final item below) and ingenuity is the name of the game.

The hover chair for older people probably just qualifies as a robot but has severe limitations. However, the most high-profile Japanese robot in a care context is the PARO baby seal. I confess to being very sceptical about its potential value until I read an item about it in Gizmag: The serious truth behind the adorable PARO baby seal-bot “[The seal] particularly likes being treated and petted in familiar ways, which is a crucial part of developing a long-term relationship with his owners”.

You will find a number of other references to care robots on the Gizmag site, including a long and detailed one on a care robot called Twendy-One. With a predicted price tag of US$110,350 to US$220,700, who with the need for a care helper will be able to afford it? Perhaps this is the successor in spirit, if not in reality, of the 2006 RI-MAN robot (with videos) where the intention was to lift and carry a bedridden person.

Do it yourself robotics?

Well, almost. Californian robotics company Willow Garage recently offered to lend ten of their PR2 robots to deserving research organisations for two years. The program was open to groups who plan on making use of the robot in existing or planned research projects. Here is a link to the company’s webpage on human interaction with robots, but do explore the many videos on the rest of the site.

If you are excited about dreaming up your own care robot, why not think about attending the 15th IASTED International Conference on Robotics and Applications, 1-3 November, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA?

Care robot ethics

The ethical considerations for robots are not greatly different to those around telecare lifestyle monitoring. In fact, people may be better disposed towards robots, perceiving that they have a greater level of control, the user being able to tell the robot to “go away”. However, proposals to move robots out of the laboratory and into in care situations will inevitably raise resistance on ‘ethical’ grounds so, to defuse it, companies should have relevant arguments built into their publicity at early stage. Here are some links to telecare ethics articles as starters:

Robots for ‘sexual care needs’?

[Suggest you read the above if you jumped here first.]

Given the context of 1) the Dutch disabled man who dismissed his care nurse for not providing sexual favours and 2) disabled people in Demark and Australia being able to receive the services of prostitutes as part of their care packages (serious discussion of the issues around disabled people paying for sex from Able Magazine), and 3) the UK’s move towards personal budgets for care which people can choose to spend on ‘non-traditional’ activities that contribute to their wellbeing (attending bingo or football matches seems to be the most adventurous so far [UPDATE 11 August 2010: Now being used to buy sex] ), then it seems justifiable to flag up an item on a US$7,000 ‘sex robot’ that appears to provide owners with an element of companionship as well as other comforts.

It would be an interesting test of freedoms under personal budget arrangements if people wanted to use them to buy such robots and it could give a whole new meaning to being a social services ‘client’.

WARNING the following link will take you to a page that, although not pornographic, will be considered not safe for work (NSFW) at the majority of readers’ workplaces. Sex Robot.

And finally…

After that mammoth read, you may need some ‘nourishment care’. If you were a student at Carnegie Mellon University you could call up a snack to be delivered to you by the Snackbot. It’s a one-off, humanoid robot with the serious purpose of studying the way people interact with robots in the long term. “The research will allow the robot to navigate through congested areas in a socially acceptable fashion, detect individual people moving near the robot, recognize when someone that the robot knows approaches it, and autonomously learn to recognize new objects.” Sweet. Snackbot website.

3 thoughts on “Robots in care: roundup

  1. Another European Care Robot research project

    Please have a look at There you will find the intermediary results of a research project where a companion robot will be integrated in a smart home environment. The project is a 4 years IP in the 7th FP and is in its 3rd year right now.

    [Excellent, thanks! Ed. Steve]

  2. The best solution to a growing problem?

    I recently had a discussion with a government policy student about ‘community care’ which here is a label for the institutionalised provision (state provision mostly) of care for the needy and vulnerable which consists mainly of children and the elderly. In the UK, by 2030 it is predicted that over half of the population will be over fifty and right now there are more over 60s here than there are under 16s.

    I know this sounds like ‘do gooder’ speak but it’s not about that, but having compassion for those around us. I found a good info source of contacts for help with senior care. Useful Contacts

    I care for a few elderly residents in my town and it gives me such satisfaction to make then more comfortable and happy. It makes me happy you could say. In short (and forgive me the rant) robots cannot replace human contact that older people need when they can no longer do for themselves. In some though I think it could prevent some older people having to go into a care home as they will have a robotic device to do some fetching, carrying, etc.

  3. Robots in Care

    Laurie is right. Older people need both practical help and support in performing domestic and self-care tasks, and companionship, compassion and the human contact that helps them to enjoy life rather than simply survive it. As the demand for both types of care increases and the resources to provide it decline, we will need to become more efficient in delivering the support – and that will mean more use of machines, robots or personal electronic appliances (PEAs) as I call them.

    The big question is whether we should be putting our R&-) resources into developing the technology that helps people perform domestic activities such as shopping, cleaning, dressing and bathing, or whether we should be trying to develop alternative ways of providing what we might currently call “human” contact. I suspect that most people would instinctively prefer to use the machines for the practical tasks and focus human resources on providing the companionship element of care. Yet, video telephony can overcome problems of geography in providing virtual presence, and set-top boxes can help find new friends and interests. So perhaps a twin track approach is justified.

    The UK has led the rest of the world in rolling out telecare services to older people for the past decade, and this has meant overcoming a number of hurdles including those of some elected members who refuse to accept the demographic realities and the cost implications of carrying on in the same old way. But there is little evidence of research in the UK that will allow us to follow this agenda through to the next stage in terms of future delivery of homecare services using electronic appliances.

    Perhaps it is time that we had an open debate on the need and value of support technologies so that designers can move forward without worrying if their products will be acceptable. Success may depend on moving forward in terms of values and culture at the same pace as technology.

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