HCRI Partners with Hasbro

A $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation will fund a three-year partnership that seeks to enhance Hasbro’s Joy for All Companion Pets into smart robots that can help older adults with everyday tasks.

 

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A group of academic researchers, led by cognitive and computer scientists from Brown University, is teaming up with a cross-functional team from global play and entertainment leader Hasbro to design a smart robotic companion capable of assisting older people with simple but sometimes challenging tasks of everyday living.

The project, dubbed ARIES (Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support), will add artificial intelligence capabilities to Hasbro’s current Joy for All Companion Pets — animatronic dogs and cats designed to provide interactive companionship, comfort and joy for older adults. The research team’s goal is to develop additional capabilities for the ARIES companions to help older adults with simple tasks that could include help in finding lost objects, medication reminders or other tasks that sometimes become challenging, especially those who may have mild dementia.

The work is supported by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation and will be led by Brown’s Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative (HCRI), a group of computer and social science researchers who explore the societal opportunities and challenges presented by robotics. The academic project team also includes researchers from Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School, Butler and Bradley hospitals in Providence, R.I., and the University of Cincinnati.

“Hasbro did a great job developing a product that can provide comfort and joy for older people,” said Bertram Malle, a professor in Brown’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, co-director of HCRI and the principal investigator on the grant. “What we want to do now is leverage our expertise in cognitive and computer science to add capabilities to this robotic pet. Neither of us could do this on our own, but together we have the expertise to potentially develop something truly beneficial.”

Over the next three years, the group plans to perform a variety of user studies to understand how ARIES might best assist older adults. Then they’ll work on developing and integrating a variety of artificial intelligence technologies that will meet the needs identified in the user studies. These could include sensor systems that allow the ARIES companion to identify and keep track of important objects around the house, such as keys or eyeglasses, help the person remember important tasks and events, and enhance safety.

The team will also study means of effective communication between the ARIES companion and users.

 

“The Joy for All Companion Pets currently make some realistic pet sounds and gestures,” Malle said. “We may want to expand those capacities and add intelligence to them, so the companions give meaningful clues — gestures, nudges, purrs — that help to guide users toward misplaced objects or let them know that it’s time to do something.”

The early user studies will play a key role in how the project unfolds, Malle says.

“There are some things — like locating objects and taking medications — that we know from the literature people find useful,” he said. “But in our first year we want to find out what other challenges people face that we don’t know about, and then see if we can develop technologies to address them.”

One critical factor the researchers will keep in mind is cost.

“The ‘A’ in ARIES stands for ‘affordable,’ and that’s something we’re taking very seriously,” said Michael Littman, a professor of computer science at Brown and co-principal investigator on the grant. “This is one of the important reasons Hasbro is a great industry partner for this project. The current Joy for All pets cost roughly $100 while similar robotic products can cost $5,000 to $6,000. We want the ARIES robot to be available to anyone who needs it.”

Ultimately, the team hopes to complete a prototype and test it with target users by the end of the three project years. The researchers stress that they don’t intend this to be a technology that can take the place of human caregivers. They hope instead that it can complement the work of caregivers and help in a small way to meet the challenge presented by an aging population.

“To us, this project really represents what we do at HCRI, which is to let societal needs drive technology development,” Malle said. “We know that caring for an aging population will be a tremendous challenge in the coming years, and we think technologies like ARIES could play a small but potentially important role in helping people meet that challenge.”

Ted Fischer, vice president for business development at Hasbro, says the company has been excited by the response to its Joy for All line. “Social isolation and loneliness are growing issues for older adults and our companion pets make people smile, Fischer said. “Hasbro’s expertise in play and engaging experiences in collaboration with leading scientists from Brown’s HCRI is a powerful combination to explore additional impactful uses for ARIES companions.”

The research team will include Peter Haas, associate director of HCRI; HCRI postdoctoral researchers Maartje de Graaf and Elizabeth Philips; Michael Armey from Butler Hospital and Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School; Gary Epstein-Lubow from Butler, Brown and Hebrew Senior Life; Claudia Rébola, an industrial design professor at the University of Cincinnati; Ron Seifer of Bradley Hospital; and a multidisciplinary team from Hasbro including designers, engineers and marketing professionals.

Humanoids for Human-olds: Sociable Service Robots Could Be the First Wave of the Robotics Revolution

As computer and mechanical engineering becomes more advanced, we are drawing ever closer to a revolution in robotics, and it’s coming just in time. By 2030, the populations of elderly people in the U.S., Japan, and Europe will explode. Worldwide, the number of people above the age of 80 will double. (1) Meanwhile life expectancy is getting higher every day. As fertility rates in these developed countries plunge below replacement rate, (2) the workforce will not be able to support the aging population without dramatic improvements in productivity. However, advances in the burgeoning field of medical robotics may offer a way for the elderly to sustain their health and independence indefinitely. Robots such as the inMotion ARM Interactive Robot™ are on the market today to provide sensory-motor therapy for victims of stroke who are re-learning how to move their limbs. It is not difficult to imagine sensing robots capable of detecting and recording vital signs, administering medicines, and assisting with the tasks of day-to-day living that become difficult at advanced ages. From this perspective, robots have several advantages even over human caregivers. They have more strength, more endurance, more consistency, and importantly, less pity.

However, the introduction of medical and service robots to the elderly presents its own set of challenges. This model deviates from standard paradigms of technology adoption, because the new technology will not be pitched at the younger, more adaptable generation. Because these robots might need to serve people relatively unfamiliar with computer interfaces and operating modes, they must be as understandable and intuitive as the human caregivers they could replace. These service robots must be able to interact socially with their patients.

Fortunately, the field of robotics is one that has long ensnared our narcissistic, anthropomorphic tendencies. One of the dreams of robotics engineers and researchers everywhere is to create an accurate emulation of a human. One such recently created lab devoted to this goal is GENI Lab. Founded in part by RISD alumnus David Hanson, GENI Lab states as its central goal “the creation of a life-sized humanoid robot featuring a realistic, emotional face and personality.“ (3) Hanson (who also took AI classes at Brown!) has gained fame in the robotics community for his daring and extraordinary attempts to overcome what is known in the industry as the Uncanny Valley. Coined in the 1970s, the term refers to the tendency of realistic robots and animations to suddenly become creepy as they approach a human appearance. With Hanson at the head, GENI Lab may be one of the first to achieve this Holy Grail of robotics.

However, creating humanistic robots requires more than just a pretty face. A good HRI relationship should result in emotions, engagement, and trust. The robots must be able to perceive and communicate intent, both verbally and nonverbally. Hanson’s heads might help with the latter requirement, but the former is an open problem. Robots have an unparalleled ability to fuse data streams from multiple sources, and this signature skill allows them to, through the use of Artificial Intelligence, combine various physiological data in order to interpret human emotions and actions. Imagine a robot capable of combining your medical history, current heart rate, previous interaction with your spouse, and what you had for breakfast in order to determine whether or not you are feeling angry – and then easing off on your prescribed exercise regimen for the day. The next big step in robotics is to create an all-purpose AI capable of making these inferential decisions, while simultaneously learning and interacting with humans in a dynamically changing environment.

The use of social service and medical robots to assist the elderly could provide a foothold for robots to gain more widespread acceptance. By filling an otherwise unmet need for full-time caregivers, these robots could form attachments with their patients – who would be able to remain independent longer – and with their patients’ families. By reinventing the public image of a robot as an emotive assistant, this first wave of humanized robot helpers could pave the way for robot assistance in the rest of our society.

-Sam

 

1. “A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics: From Internet to Robotics.” 2013 Edition. March 20, 2013. http://robotics-vo.us/sites/default/files/2013%20Robotics%20Roadmap-rs.pdf

 

2. U.N. Economic and Social Council. “World Population to 2300.” 2004 http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/longrange2/WorldPop2300final.pdf

 

3. “About.” Geni-Lab.com. GENI LAB, 2013. Web. 21 June 2013. http://geni-lab.com/about-geni-lab/