Robots to the rescue

The pandemic’s restrictions on person-to-person interaction have upended the conventional means of helping people deal with a crisis. At the same time, the situation highlights the potential benefits of socially assistive robots, according to Jeffrey Krichmar, UCI professor of cognitive sciences.

“In general, I don’t think the public is very aware of what these robots can do to improve our lives,” he says. “There’s more education that needs to be done. I hope COVID-19 will be a wake-up call to our robotics community to spur new ideas.”

In this memory and attention experiment led by Xinyun Zou, a UCI doctoral student in computer science, the Toyota Human Support Robot known as CARL SR correctly guesses that she’s hungry, finds an apple and brings it to her. Image credit: Jeffrey Krichmar / UCI

Socially assistive robots interact with people and can perform household chores, accomplish healthcare tasks, and offer emotional support. Mobile devices with multiple sensors and manipulators, they communicate through wireless internet connectivity and can function either autonomously or via remote control. The robots are employed in education, healthcare, and business, as well as disaster relief operations. 

Telepresence robots, for instance, allow children or adults homebound with a chronic illness or other medical condition to engage in school or workplace activities. The units are physically located in the classroom or office, giving users mobility and a sense of being on-site.

“As we begin to reopen [society], I anticipate a hybrid situation where some people can attend a school or go to work, but others must stay home,” Krichmar says. “Being able to participate remotely through a moving robot could make that transition smoother. I can also see this technology expanding to a wider population. For example, people could visit their relatives in nursing homes or hospitals this way.”

Robotic dogs, cats and baby seals can provide emotional support to those who are lonely or anxious due to shelter-in-place restrictions, along with the elderly and children with neurodevelopmental disorders – similar to the comfort that a pet offers but without the care, feeding and mess. These are not yet in widespread use, however, because they’re costly and limited in their capacity.

UCI’s Cognitive Anteater Robotics Laboratory, led by Krichmar, is where cutting-edge robotic systems that mimic the mammalian brain are designed. A number of its projects involve the Toyota Human Support Robot. Called CARL SR, it’s been programmed to perform such basic tasks as serving meals, putting away groceries and taking out the trash, as well as functions requiring higher-level cognition skills. These include anticipating a person’s needs and retrieving any associated objects, as well as learning where they’re located.

Krichmar is confident that assistive robots will, in the future, play a larger role during crises like the current one. He sees parallels to Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. “That accident highlighted the fact that robots were not ready to help, which led to a number of advances in rescue robotics,” Krichmar says. “I’m hopeful that this pandemic will prompt the socially assistive robotics community to make progress so that we can be prepared to help in future health crises.”

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