University of Toronto's Robot Brian Aims To Help The Elderly

Monday, February 25, 2013

Robot Brian

For University of Toronto researcher Goldie Nejat, a new generation of social robots is poised to enter our lives and assist us. Her project robot "Brian" is a prototype built to socially interact with seniors in long-term care facilities.
A t the University of Toronto, the healthcare robot “Brian” may not look much like a technological marvel — in fact he is pretty ugly.  Goldie Nejat, Brian’s creator and, assistant professor in the U of T’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, says he looks this way because he’s still a prototype and also because, when fashioning him from silicone rubber, metal and wire, she kept in mind the uncanny valley phenomenon.

Brian is a prototype socially interactive robot. The 4-foot-6, 200-pound machine may one day assist the elderly in long-term-care facilities by interacting with residents, playing games and reminding those with cognitive impairments to do daily tasks, such as brushing their teeth.

Dr. Nejat’s research team has developed a silicone rubber face for Brian to allow it to display facial expressions, and is continuously working on improving this face. Developed with Baycrest, the health sciences centre in Toronto that is focused on aging, Brian will soon go for a trial run in a nursing home.

The robot can display emotion through expression and through speech and his ultimate goal is to enhance quality of life for cognitively impaired seniors in long-term care. Robots like Brian, says Nejat, will provide companionship for seniors or remind them to take their medication; others will be more hands on, keeping tabs on post-op patients or teaching those with mobility issues to walk again.

In the future, robots be on the market for daily home use; while others will operate as part of a fleet owned by a single institution, with a different robot attending to a patient’s every individual need. “That’s our objective,” Nejat says. “Ten, 20 years down the line, you will see these robots in private homes, nursing homes and hospitals.”

Social Robot Brian

Robots could take over repetitive routine tasks that are part of a caregiver’s duties, and, says Nejat, “can overwhelm them. We have to remember, too, that many caregivers are themselves a part of the aging baby boomer population.”

Work on Brian has been going on for more than six years and Nejat figures it could be another decade before a whole generation could be at work across North America.

Nejat also says the robot’s records of individual histories should help doctors track any improvement in a patient’s cognitive abilities, giving it a role alongside medication and other therapy in delaying the onset and progress of dementia.

Dr. Nejat describing the uncanny valley as one of the reasons (along with cost) for Brian's crude appearance.  According to the theory, humans prefer their robots to look like robots. "If he looked too human, if you expect its functionality to be exactly like a human, encouragement and pleasant feelings associated with the robot drop," she explains.

Brian has a face and wears a University of Toronto T-shirt, but exposed wires run the length of his frame, which has three-pronged metal hands and a webcam attached to his head. Brian is clearly a robot. And his functionality is limited to social interaction. He doesn't physically interact with people or his environment. This is intentional, so he is less intimidating to patients.

But he gets more human-like every day, Dr. Nejat says. And his facial expressions are improving after modifications. "That's the second generation of the face." The first one sits discarded on a shelf.

"We had to reverse-engineer a person, mentally as well as physically," says Dr. Nejat, who built Brian with a rotating team of mechanical engineering students and health consultants, including occupational therapists and psychologists.

SOURCE  Reader's Digest

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