Assistive Robots

Assistive Robots

HERB with associate professor of robotics Siddhartha Srinivasa

Assistive Robots

Poster from the film Robot & Frank

Robot & Frank, a science-fiction movie now in national release, is about an aging thief named Frank whose son buys him an off-the-shelf robot to help with daily living.

Despite Frank's initial trepidations — "That thing's going to kill me in my sleep!" — the robot is soon cooking his meals and tending his garden. And, ultimately, Frank enlists the robot into his old life of crime.

The movie is set in the near future, but Carnegie Mellon University researchers are already creating robots and other assistive technologies to help older adults and people with disabilities in their everyday lives at the Quality of Life Technology Center (QoLT).

QoLT is a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center based at CMU and the University of Pittsburgh.

"Of course, we aren't building robots that will commit crimes, but the vision of robots that can help people enjoy life and live independently is one that we share with these filmmakers," said Dan Siewiorek, director of the QoLT Center. "This may be sci-fi now, but the technologies are being invented and developed in our laboratories today."

Service tasks that Frank's robot performs with ease, such as complex cooking and cleaning, remain major technical challenges, as does the nuanced interactions of the movie robot. But QoLT researchers are finding the solutions with projects such as the Home Exploring Robot Butler (HERB).

The two-armed, mobile robot or "HERB," can recognize and manipulate a variety of everyday objects. It can recycle bottles, retrieve personal items and even play interactive games such as basketball or tic-tac-toe. HERB recently learned to cook and serve microwave meals.

Other researchers are using a robot called Snackbot, which delivers snacks to office workers, to examine people's social expectations regarding robots. 

Studies have explored how people react differently to variations in a robot's voice, conversation and embodied movement patterns — with factors like gender, culture, pace, intonation, emotion and subject matter all under consideration.

"As intelligent and adaptive technologies become ever more integrated into our normal personal lives, we may not view them as cold, personal devices — mere "appliances," to use Frank's chosen phrase of insult. We expect they will become true partners and companions to the human users they serve," Siewiorek said.

Assisting memory and helping people maintain mental acuity in old age is a common goal of both Frank's movie robot and other technologies being developed at the QoLT Center. Several different "Virtual Coach" systems have been designed for just such cognitive needs:

  • MemExerciser, a lifelogging tool that captures and presents rich content back to people with cognitive problems to maintain memories;
  • dwellSense, which monitors daily interactions with household objects to detect changes that may indicate mental decline; and
  • First Person Vision and the Cueing Kitchen, which recognize what a user intends to do and then prompts him or her to complete the task,  whether it be getting dressed in the morning or making a sandwich.

"General-purpose robots aren't ready yet, but we see intelligent systems technologies emerging in the near term to help people: personal and mobile computing, driving and transportation technologies, home design and more," Siewiorek said. "We look forward to continuing to work with real-world users, and the organizations that support them, to ensure that our work helps them live better lives."

Related Links: QoLT Center | Robotics Institute | Speeding Commercialization | National Science Foundation | Popular Science Article: HERB | Robotics Excellence

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