[Paleopsych] Gannett: Aging boomers create demand for robots

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Aging boomers create demand for robots
Monday, November 15, 2004

     By Kevin Maney
     Gannett News Service

     You're in no danger, aging baby boomers. We'll clean and care for you
     and keep you company.
     Never mind the humanoid Automated Domestic Assistants walking rich
     people's pets in the movie I, Robot, or the accordion-armed Robot B9
     in TV classic Lost in Space warning of danger on lonely planets.
     The real force driving the development of personal robots -- and what
     eventually will create demand for them in the marketplace -- is aging
     baby boomers.
     That's the secret among robotics researchers and budding robot
     companies. As boomers get older, they increasingly will be unable to
     care for themselves or their homes. They'll face a social and medical
     system straining to help them. But they'll be comfortable with
     Robot experts predict that a decade from now, boomers might buy a
     specialized R2D2-like robot to clean the kitchen and a health care
     'bot to monitor vital signs and make sure pills are taken. Yet another
     robot -- built more like a skinny, 5-foot-tall human -- might
     specialize in fetching things from shelves or the basement, reducing
     chances for falls.
     "As the demographics change, robots could help solve some problems,"
     says Rodney Brooks, director of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) lab
     at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The question is, where
     is that transition?"
     "At some point, there will be an explosion," says Sebastian Thrun,
     director of Stanford University's AI lab.
     With that in mind, robot projects are popping up everywhere. Most are
     experimental, but some are becoming commercial products.
     Robots that are likely to serve the elderly seem to fall into three
     broad categories. Though the categories don't officially have names,
     you could call them homebots, carebots and joybots.
     A look at those categories speaks volumes about what's going on in
     The Roomba is Burlington, Mass.-based iRobot's first offering. Set it
     in the middle of a room, turn it on, and it finds its way around using
     artificial intelligence, vacuuming every square inch.
     Thrun says, "There will be robots that pick up dishes from the table
     and put them in the dishwasher within five years."
     That means that homebots probably will be some of the first
     mass-market robots, emerging just as boomers reach a point where they
     can't do much housework but don't want to move out of their homes.
     Still, early versions will be anything but perfect. Making even
     single-purpose robots has its difficulties. For example, computers and
     software still aren't good enough to give a robot the visual
     capabilities of a 2-year-old human.
     A handful of hospitals and nursing homes are experimenting with
     robots. At Johns Hopkins University Hospital, a gadget dubbed Robo-doc
     helps busy doctors monitor patients following surgery. Carnegie Mellon
     has worked on robots that can safely walk nursing home patients, for
     instance, from their rooms to the dining hall.
     Those are the early versions of carebots that could help tend to the
     elderly in their homes.
     A robot could autonomously do straightforward tasks such as monitor
     blood pressure, dispense pills and call 911 if its owner was in a heap
     on the floor and not moving. For more complex judgments, the Tbot
     could connect to and be controlled by a human nurse or doctor via the
     Much of that is possible within the next decade, robot experts say.
     But certain barriers persist.
     "To give health care to the elderly, robots need the manual dexterity
     of a 6-year-old, and we don't have that yet," says MIT's Brooks.
     "Whether or not you have to love your robot is another question,"
     Brooks says. "I don't need my ATM to be cute."
     Here is a great point of departure between U.S. and Japanese robotics
     research. U.S. labs and companies generally approach robots as tools.
     The Japanese approach them as beings.
     That explains a lot about experimental robot projects coming out of
     Japan. Sony's Qrio looks humanoid, and the company bills it as "an
     entertainment robot that lives with you, makes life fun, makes you
     happy." It can learn to distinguish different people's faces and
     voices. But, it doesn't do housework.
     Such joybots one day might help with another difficulty that can
     accompany aging: loneliness. If so, a Qrio could become a significant
     segment of a coming personal robotics industry.

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