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What is the future really like for home healthcare robots? A new film “Robot and Frank” is a pretty funny take on the idea and I think (and hope) it will offer some insight into the problems that we’ll encounter as this dream is pursued. The film features a grumpy elderly gentleman with a helpful, but slightly bossy, robot assistant who looks very much like the Honda Asimo humanoid robot.
The film looks very funny but I’m not sure that “humanoid” robots are the one-stop solution that is often proposed. I am sure that they will be created and lots of people will buy them, but I’m not convinced that they are the best solution to the problem.
In an interview in Wired, Colin Angle, the CEO of iRobot, said the the Roomba was the best home healthcare robot:
My goal is quite simple: to extend the amount of time you can live independently at home. You need to be able to maintain your home. That completely fits with what we’re already doing. Roomba is the most successful healthcare robot ever created. Older people are among the most rabid purchasers of Roomba. We get stories about people’s lives being changed by their Roomba. The floor washing robot Scooba is the same — that’s a manually intensive thing that older people struggle to do.
I agree with his sentiments. If we want to enable elderly people to live for longer in their own homes, we need to eliminate the reasons they move out, one by one, task by task. The Roomba is actually more like an appliance than a robot - along similar lines to a microwave or a dishwasher - and appliances have probably done more to improve life for the disabled and the elderly than many more high tech inventions.
That is not to say that future appliances might not look more like robots - with more use of linear actuators instead of simple motors. Folding clothes, making the bed, clearing up dirty dishes, serving dinner, and taking medications are all task where linear actuators will probably be needed. A dishwasher is really a robot but a machine that folds clothes, really looks like a robot:
The Robot and Frank film also illustrates the fact than introducing something as sci-fi as a robot will always create more problems than introducing useful appliances (even if robotic), in an incremental fashion. From seeing clips, it seems like the real advance that the film illustrates is ability to communicate effortlessly with the machine through advanced AI and voice recognition. However, this is one function that really doesn't need a robot - we just need speakers and microphone connected to the internet - and it will allow less mobile people to interact with a device from a distance and eliminate the need to use a keyboard or mouse. It might also eliminate the need for a display on many devices, as the entire user experience could be conducted through conversation.
I'm really looking forward to seeing this film. As well as satiating my need for a regular sci-fi fix, it will be interesting to see how they explore the various physical and psychological issues that are driving the vision for home healthcare robots.