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"I'm Here to Make You Feel Better"

Robots can already perform surgery and track your meds. Now, new models aim to provide therapy and support.

Bandit-II is a "socially assistive" robot being developed at the University of Southern California. (University Of Southern California)
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By Anita Slomski
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Before consumers send their Roombas for repair, they sometimes etch their names on the machines in the hopes of getting their own robots back. Somehow, they grow attached to the squat, disk-shaped sweepers and worry that a new robot will have a different personality.

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"People are grateful that the Roomba improves their lives, so they reciprocate by giving it attention like they would a pet," says Ja-Young Sung, a doctoral student at Georgia Tech who surveyed 379 Roomba owners in 2007 on their attitudes toward the robotic device. Sung found that many owners who gave their Roombas names also painted them, dressed them in costumes or turned them on to entertain friends.

That willingness to interact with an object that, if not inanimate, is hardly human presents both a challenge and an opportunity for creators of new devices that go far beyond housekeeping to imitate the actions of people and even provide therapy. Difficult as it is to design a robot that can assemble a Toyota or handle toxic waste, researchers are working on making machines that can coach, motivate and monitor people with cognitive and physical disabilities -- machines that are "socially assistive."

That term was coined by Maja J. Mataric, director of the Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems at the University of Southern California, and her research group to describe machines that could, for example, tirelessly encourage a stroke patient to do rehabilitation exercises; move alongside someone with dementia, giving directions to help navigate the hallways of an assisted living facility; or provide a catalyst to teach children with autism how to interact with humans.

Service robots aren't new; rehabilitation machines used primarily to push or pull stroke patients' limbs have been around for a decade. But such devices are expensive and not particularly good company, Mataric says.

Only recently have roboticists been able to go further, delving into the complex realm of human-robot interactions, as much a study of human psychology as of engineering. For a human to relate to a robot, the machine must be capable of expressing a personality, discerning the user's emotions and intentions, displaying feelings such as empathy, or following social conventions.

"A socially ignorant robot always takes a direct path, stops if something is in its way and interrupts at any point to do its task," explains Kerstin Dautenhahn, a research professor in the School of Computer Science at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. "But a socially interactive robot modifies its path to avoid getting too close to a human, waits until the right time to talk and fetches items without being asked."

Research on such machines is in its earliest stages. "There are a handful of researchers working on socially assistive robotics versus thousands working on robot navigation, particularly for military applications," Mataric says.

Still, whether they're chunky vacuum cleaners or upright machines that can, after a fashion, walk, talk and respond, robotic creations seem to fascinate their human companions, and that, increasingly, is helping them ambulate toward new roles as medical caregivers. "Robots will never replace human interaction, but they can augment it," says Martha E. Pollack, dean and professor at the University of Michigan's School of Information.

"We can write algorithms to allow the robot to sense what a person is doing so it can respond immediately, appropriately and safely," Mataric says. "That wasn't possible 10 years ago."

Sensors attached to a person's wrist, elbow or clothing, for example, can allow a robot to detect the human's movements and respond. A heat sensor can instruct the machine to turn or move toward a warm body, enabling it to participate in a game of chase or create the appearance that a person has its full attention. "Artificial audition" technology has improved so that a robot can now track one conversation when several people in a room are talking. And eventually some machines might even provide a hug. To make that happen, Fran├žois Michaud, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, is building a prototype with an element inside its motor that responds to feedback from the environment.

And if you're not in a hugging mood?


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