“Precisely, Sir,” said Jeeves.

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“I hear the carrots are delicious,” says 12-year-old Brian. “Would you like to try some?”

The elderly lady across the table takes another bite and Brian smiles. They make some conversation and agree they should have lunch together again sometime.

Meanwhile Casper, in the house next door, approaches a man. “It’s time for lunch. Let’s go to the kitchen and make some lunch together.” The man would like a tuna sandwich, so Casper walks him through the process of making it for himself, then leads him into the dining room.

Casper’s friend Tangy rolls up fresh from facilitating a bingo game. “You have a Skype call from your son. If you’d like to talk to him, just press the green square.”

Brian, Casper and Tangy are experimental socially-assistive androids, from Goldie Nejat’s Autonomous Systems and Biomechatronics Lab at the University of Toronto. They’re designed to help out in assisted living facilities, particularly for residents with dementia, but they don’t actually do anything for you. In fact, they are there to make sure you do everything you can, so that the staff don’t end up helping you too much and infringing on your independence.

For example, many dementia sufferers can still feed themselves, but they are easily distracted from the task of eating, with the result that the meal stays mostly on the plate. With consistent prompting, everything gets eaten, but in the reality of nursing homes it’s more expedient just to feed someone by hand and move on to the next part of the scheduled day. That’s not ideal, so the robot is there to take the prompting route instead, and it can repeat itself with infinite patience.

Equipped with off-the-shelf servomotors, a $40 dollar webcam, and sensors like Microsoft Kinnect or Nintendo Wii, the robots detect engagement in a task through face orientation and body pose.

There’s a longstanding debate about whether we’ve outgrown the notion of human-shaped robots, but these residents don’t respond to the same suggestions given by Brian’s face on a screen. In fact, they don’t even look at the screen. Faced with the embodied version, though, they chat to Brian even when told he doesn’t have speech recognition yet. There’s just something special about a moving, talking entity that can occupy a chair.

The feature that might bring these robots out of the gerontological world and into the mainstream is that they can help the staff, too. They can translate terms from the caregiver’s language, remind her about Mr. Smith who needs to be rolled over in bed, and when their batteries are low they trundle over to their own docking station for charging.

Just as ramps and door-opening buttons were put in place for disabled people but have proved useful to us all, socially-assistive robots can be cheerleaders and accountability partners to dementia patients and able-bodied users alike. Comparable to embodied superegos, when we make the extra effort, they can reward us with approval.

“Good afternoon, Jessa. I remember you expressed an intention to finish your Nautilus edits today. I see that you are still reading Harper’s magazine. Let’s go over to your computer and get you started, shall we?”

As Dr. Nejat says, “The Robots are coming.” I, for one, will welcome our new robot overlords.

 

Image: Spooky Pooka, via Wellcome Images

 

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