A new area of robotics has emerged, called socially assistive robots.
These robots not only help us turn the lights on or order the groceries. They’re starting to learn how to be polite and even how to react in socially complex situations. In fact, they will learn who we are and what we like – and also remind us to take our medicine!
A friendly robot that can socially interact is just the tonic for elderly, lonely, or mobility-challenged people. And that’s just the start.
What these socially assistive robots can be capable of is capped only by imagination and is sure to increase at an incredible rate in the near future.
But are we ready yet?
Changing the way we think about robots
Of all the famous science fiction books and movies about robots going rogue and wiping out humanity, The Terminator is probably the most well known. In that movie, the robots follow the (human-given) command to protect the human race by exterminating some of them.
But most of us don’t have such an extreme view of robots, even if we’re wary of what they might do.
We talk to Siri, Cortana, and Alexa. If we were unlucky enough to lose an arm in an accident, we’d probably be OK with the idea of a prosthetic robot-arm as a replacement.
Aside from movies and replacement limbs, the world now uses robotic surgical assistants, robot aids to vacuum and clean the house in our absence, and there are even people who have robotic dogs.
You could say your electrical appliances work like robots (never argue or get tired, never need a day off etc).
The only difference is the washing machine doesn’t collect the laundry from your bedroom floor, hang it out to dry and then iron and fold it away in the closet. Well, that’s what robots will do for us at some point in the future.
Regardless, we’re already quite happy to talk to the robots of today through our phones.
Robots that care for an aging population?
The next step in the robot evolution is creating robots that can care for our aging population. Imagine knowing a relative has a socially assistive robot that will act as an around-the-clock carer.
Perhaps even more importantly, picture a robot that can give comfort and actually hold a conversation. And this is coming. Microsoft holds a patent already.
Historically, IBM has tested robots to care for the elderly, and a Japanese company called SoftBank Robotics paved the way for Microsoft to create the next generation of socially assistive robots.
Of course, one of the biggest barriers to the success of the robots is the perception people have of them.
That’s why we started off talking about killer robots from the future exterminating all mankind. That’s the way millions of people think about robots. Imagine giving your grandma a robot and her thinking that at any given moment it’s going to turn evil and try to kill her!
Because of this, in recent years the development of these robots has been focused largely on the perception and experiences (with socially assistive robots) of a group of people aged 50 – 95.
From that study four major themes emerged…
- What role a socially assistive robot should play in a person’s life
- How the robot interacted (and adapted) to their interactions with older adults
- The cultural and physical appearance of robots
- The ethical dilemmas that arise when a machine cares for a human
What do people want from a robot?
The research shows that elderly adults want a robot that’s going to do the heavy lifting and shifting for them.
They also want a robot to remind them when to take their medication. People also reported they’d want a robot to nudge them about any appointments they have, and if required to transport them to that appointment.
And, of course, people want a robot that keeps them company – a robot that can have a conversation that feels as human and interactive as possible. Younger relatives want to feel safe in the knowledge that their elders are in good hands with a robot that will raise the alarm in an emergency.
This research has led developers to the conclusion that how a robot communicates ultimately determines whether the robot will be accepted by society at large.
A robot that sounds like a robot is a turn-off, no matter how helpful they might be.
The next generation of robots
The next evolution in robotic care starts with robots recognizing human voices and being able to separate who is giving them a command rather than simply acting on any command they hear.
And what if the robot could be spontaneous rather than having to wait for a command? Imagine if a robot could sense that a joke would cheer you up rather than you needing to ask the robot to tell you a joke.
Another super-important realization that came from this research was that adults want their robots to perform perfectly each and every time.
Even one slip-up and the seed of doubt is sown. If the robot forgets to put sugar in your tea, then what’s next? Maybe it will mess up your meds.
A friendly face?
Finally, there’s ongoing and vigorous debate about what a robot should look like. Should a robot resemble a giant tin can or should it look human? Opinion is polarized here. If you choose human, can you choose the face of a loved one or is that getting too spooky?
And how about gender? Should robots be gender neutral or some form of hybrid?
Then there were people who fell into the middle ground where they wanted a bit of everything. Not too mechanical looking but not too human looking either.
A big concern that sprang from the research concerns privacy. If the robot is monitoring the health and activity of someone, that data can be shared, or even live streamed. How would you know?
As a last point of note, there’s the cost of a robot to consider. Currently the cost is going to be high enough for only the very affluent to afford them. And ironically, the group that can afford them is probably the group that needs them the least.
Either way, socially assistive robots are already on the rise.
What do you think will be the biggest challenges and opportunities about that kind of future?