How far are we from having robots as assistive devices?

PR2 robot from Willow Garage

PR2 robot from Willow Garage (source:

One of the most interesting technologies emerging in the area of consuming services has to do with robotics. Currently, there are a number of cases where robots are used to serve people in specific situations. Such an example is a company based in South Korea named KIST has led the development of a humanoid teaching robot called Erki, which has been under trial for more than a year now as an assistant in primary school teaching. Using robots as assistants in public places can be quite challenging. There are a number of issues to take under account apart from the interface and the communication of the robot with humans. For example, how will the robot operate in a situation where a group of students try to vandalize it, what happens when a part of the robot breaks down, how often and how long does it need to be recharged?

Apart from practical matters need to be addressed in such use of robots there are also a number of other issues on how people can accept robots as assistants in their everyday life tasks. BBC in an article about the problems of deploying robots as assistants in Japan focuses on some very important issues on the subject. One of them is the cost of such robots and to that direction last May, Willow Garage, a California based maker of robot hardware and software, released a test version of its personal robot platform.
PR2 as this robot is called, has two arms, a variety of sensors, processors and a hard disk and comes for the price of 400.000$. The cost is obviously prohibitive for anyone to buy such a robot but the target for PR2 is to become a platform for testing a series of applications developed in different research centres. Samsung Electronics has already started using PR2 in their research for personal robots. The Bosch Research and Technology Centre have also begun a two-year project to enhance PR2 with even more sensors in order to improve its performance and reliability. Other institutes taking part in beta testing of PR2 and using it for research include Georgia Institute of Technology with the proposal “Assistive Mobile Manipulation for Older Adults at Home”, MIT CSAIL with the proposal “Mobile Manipulation in Human-Centred Environments”, Stanford University with the proposal “STAIR on PR2”, University of Pennsylvania with the proposal “PR2GRASP: From Perception and Reasoning to Grasping” and many more.

Having a common platform for developing all these applications by different institutes can lead to rapid innovation in robotics since the combination and integration of all these projects under a common platform adds significant value to the product itself. In addition, this added value also broadens the target group of persons that will potentially use such a robot which in turn can have significant impact on its cost. It also demonstrates a new way of innovation in robotics under common platforms that can be used for development of various applications.

In the future we might see robots like PR2 being able to adjust to various circumstances and being used for different purposes according to the software and the applications installed on them. Therefore, a PR2 version with improved social skills software might be used easier in open environments such as hospitals, nursing houses, taking care of elderly, etc. Another version of PR2 with improved navigation software might also be used for guidance of blind persons in open environments. Connecting this kind of innovation with consuming and using services robots might become helpful assistants for persons with disabilities both in their close home environment and for open environments requiring more social and interpersonal skills. For example, in the case of the elderly person walking in the restaurant and ordering a course he is not allowed to eat, the robot might act as a friend would do in such a case. It could remind the person of his condition and doctor’s advices about his diet and provide alternatives.

Although such a scenario might be quite true in a few years it also raises a lot of questions and dangers. But we’ll discuss about them in another post.

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