The Real WALL-E

 by Jessica Tanenbaum  |  June 26th, 2008  |  Published in All, Technology, Weird Science

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The new Disney movie WALL-E features robots of the future actively helping humans. But the future is now. This ScienCentral News video reports on a real robot that could help us take care of elderly relatives from miles away.

[If you cannot see the You Tube video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewee: Rod Grupen, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Length: 1 min 44 sec
Produced by Sunita Reed and James Eagan
Edited by Sunita Reed and James Eagan
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage courtesy
Walt Disney Pictures.

“Couldn’t you just give us a little robot?”

Imagine you’re an aging person who doesn’t move around so well, and you’ve misplaced your reading glasses. Sound like a job for a personal robot? That’s what University of Massachusetts Amherst roboticist Rod Grupen and his collaborators have concluded, based on focus groups and research. And that’s why uBot was born.

In his current form, the toddler-sized uBot device could help you find your glasses in a number of ways. You could use uBot to call up somebody, your granddaughter, say, for help. uBot’s LCD monitor will display your granddaughter’s face as you brainstorm with her about where the glasses might be hiding. From anywhere with an internet connection, your granddaughter can use a gaming controller to drive uBot around your house to help you search. And once the glasses are located, uBot can fetch them for you. Problem solved.

uBot wheels around, sees the world through a web cam, and picks up objects, and he’s got more features on the way.

In the interdisciplinary collaboration called Project ASSIST, researchers talk to elderly people about how to make technology address their needs. During focus group sessions, people at eldercare facilities “asked, ‘Couldn’t you just give us a little robot that would move around?’ So we developed it,” Grupen says.

uBot may be one solution to a problem that’s about to hit the US: a swell of elderly people who will need healthcare and support. “Up to seventy million people will be moving into the main frame eldercare institutions,” says Grupen. “We have to figure out different ways of doing eldercare in a distributed and more efficient fashion.” A device like uBot may allow people to stay in their homes longer but still be cared for according to their needs, he says.

Designing uBot

For a head, uBot has an LCD touch-screen that can display the face of a family member, doctor, or anybody else who wants to take the robot for a spin. He’s not yet as sophisticated as the Jetsons’ robotic maid Rosie, but Grupen’s team is working to make uBot steer himself and respond to its client’s direct commands. “Ultimately, autonomy is our goal,” he says.

Such autonomy could be useful, says Grupen, if the robot’s owner, the client, were to take a spill. “If the person falls over and is responsive and gets back up, the robot might very well ask permission to make a teleconferencing phone call to the family doctor,” he says. Or if the client doesn’t respond, the robot could take preliminary steps: using stethoscopes or blood pressure cuffs, calling the EMT, and transmitting information “so the EMT knows how to triage and prepare to treat that subject when they finally get to the location,” Grupen explains.

What’s the right kind of robot for eldercare contexts, a wheeled or bipedal device? Grupen’s team gave uBot wheels to keep the design cheap and simple. That means uBot can’t climb stairs, but that limitation may be just right for an aging client who also doesn’t climb stairs. uBot’s inverted pendulum shape provides balance, and if it falls, it can do a pushup to right itself.

Grupen uses male pronouns to refer to uBot (“He’s not a bulky, rigid robot,” Grupen says) but the robot’s gender is up for grabs. “Eventually, you’ll be able to select both the shape of the robot and the voice,” says Grupen, who adds that uBot’s current upside-down triangle figure makes it seem male. “You just have to give it a nice compelling female voice, maybe change the shape of the body of the robot a little, and you’ll have a female assistant,” he says.

Grupen works in the computer science department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, but through Project ASSIST (directed by Professor Al Hanson at UMass), he’s also working with researchers from the UMass School of Nursing, Smith College’s School for Social Work, the Veteran’s Administration, and local eldercare facilities.

Like most people with older family members to worry about, Grupen has his own reasons for wanting to develop a personal robot. “I myself recall several times when my family has been sitting around the Thanksgiving table wondering about how we can deliver effective, cost-effective, and sensitive care to an elderly member of the family, wondering how we can spend more time with them, or wishing that we could make visits more often, help around the house, that we could get into their house, that we could come back every weekend and keep them company,” he says.

“You can deliver peace of mind both to an eldercare client and to the supporting family members, if you could just allow them just to poke in with just the ease of a telephone call,” Grupen explains.

Publication: Journal of Autonomous Robots, February 2008
Authors: P. Deegan, R. Grupen, A. Hanson, E. Horrell, S. Ou, E. Riseman, S. Sen, B. Thibodeau, A. Williams and D. Xie
Funding: the National Science Foundation, Army Research Office, and NASA Human and Robotics Technology Program.

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