Turning robots into surrogates for homebound senior citizens

December 31, 2013

British researchers are testing how the Nao (left) can provide a real-world presence for the elderly. (Ed Alcock/Nao)

Imagine sitting on a park bench and a 23-inch tall robot sidling up next to you and striking up a conversation. Would you be flustered and find another place to sit? Or would you squat down and chat with it at eye level?

British researchers have undertaken a three-year examination of whether robots, acting as surrogates, can take the place of humans in public spaces. They want to help senior citizens who may lack the mobility to get out and about. One day robots might wheel around public places, piloted remotely by a 70-year-old grandfather who wants to experience a rally or concert, but has trouble leaving the house.

“People want to be on the streets together. There’s a very important social function of being with others in public. Being able to use technology to do that kind of stuff is one of the things I think would be really neat to get out of this,” said Mark Levine, a social psychologist at the University of Exeter and researcher on the project.

The team of researchers will use technology to read facial expressions and body posture to see how people react to the presence of robots. They plan to launch a living laboratory next year in which robots and humans interact in public settings.

Levine acknowledges the privacy concerns of robots that record and transmit what they see and hear. He wants to find a way to collect useful data without revealing the identities of the people captured. Another challenge is making sure the interface would be user-friendly for older generations, who often struggle with technology.

The researchers are throwing their weight behind the importance of public spaces, which are increasingly being marginalized as lives are lived out on digital devices. The music streaming from our headphones drowns out street performers. Chance encounters with old acquaintances increasingly happen on LinkedIn and Facebook instead of a local park or street. Meeting for coffee can give way to catching up over Gchat or messaging services.

“We’re either inside our cars or our homes. That old notion of public space being an important place for the exchange of ideas, meeting strangers and all that kind of stuff is increasingly being lost,” said Levine, who is joined on the project by researchers from the Universities of Bath and Oxford, Queen Mary University of London and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory.

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Matt McFarland · December 31, 2013