BBC – Future – Will we ever have robotic assistants?


Movies like Robot and Frank and I, Robot, and animated TV shows like The Jetsons, describe a future where robotic servants take on the chores, allowing families to spend more time together and the elderly to stay independent longer.

A future of robotic caregivers is closer than we may realize. Robotic vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers are already available, while assistive technologies for the care of the elderly have been heavily used in Japan. The Pepper robot from Middlesex University recently appeared before a UK special parliamentary committee to answer questions about the role of robots in education.

Robots, on the other hand, are a relatively recent phenomenon. With people living longer, there is a growing population of older people who will need help for their daily lives. However, the lack of available caregivers means that we could have an adult care crisis in the near future. Japan, for example, is expected to face a deficit of 370,000 family caregivers by 2025.

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Although current assistive technologies are still a long way from a future where our cooked meals for us and all our housework are completed for us, they offer a tempting glimpse of a possible future.

Most robots are currently widely used in heavy industry and manufacturing, where dangerous and repetitive tasks are routinely performed by automated systems. However, these heavy-duty industrial robots are not designed to work in the presence of people because they move fast and are made from hard materials that can cause injury.

Current collaboration robots, or cobots, as they are known elsewhere, are made with joints and rigid links. When they work close to the man, their speed is inhibited so that they can interact safely with people.

However, the next generation of collaborative robots will be made of softer materials, such as rubber, silicon, or fabrics. "These robots are intrinsically safe because of their material properties," says Helge Wurdemann, a robot scientist at University College London. "These types of flexible robots, controllable in rigidity, promise to achieve the accuracy and repeatability of today's collaborative robots while ensuring secure interaction with humans."

One of the biggest challenges is that navigation systems for human interactive robots are not yet fully developed. They work, to a certain extent, but can easily become confusing, as with robotic vacuum cleaners that do not return to their charging base. In simple laboratory conditions, robots can determine the best path to follow, but a real environment, such as a house filled with tables, chairs and general mess, is very different.

Robots also struggle with surface changes and, like Doctor Who's formidable Daleks, stairs

"Many of these algorithms have been developed in the lab and are relatively simple compared to the level of clutter and human activity in a real home," says Nicola Bellotto, computer scientist at the University of Lincoln and responsible Enriched technique, a project. try to build robots to help look after and watch the elderly.

The robots are also struggling with surface changes and, like the dreaded Daleks of Doctor Who, the stairs. In 2017, an autonomous security robot in Washington DC drowned after collapsing in an office fountain. Operating safely in the presence of children and animals can also be a challenge, as demonstrated in 2016 when a safety robot crushed a toddler in a center. commercial of Silicon Valley after the child has moved towards him.

Coordinating movements in response to sensor information is another challenge for robotics, which in turn affects a robot's ability to interact with the environment. Robots can fight with tasks that most humans, and even dogs, would find quite simple, like catching a ball.

This is due to the incredible number of factors to consider, which can overload an autonomous system and cause errors. "From the point of view of machine learning, most decisions are easier to make than to take for a robot," says Diane Cook, co-director of the Washington State's Artificial Intelligence Lab. University. "Some mentally difficult tasks for humans are simpler for robots, while some of the simple movements for humans are quite difficult for robots."

Many modern robots are function-specific, such as robotic vacuums, rather than being multifunctional mechanoids

There is also the question of whether we want our robotic assistants to look human. There is the concept of the supernatural valley – where objects that almost, but not exactly, imitate the human form can dissuade people from using them. Instead, like robotic vacuums in our homes, robots could be designed aesthetically around their function.

"The more it looks like a human, the more the person who receives the care will resist the care provided by the robot," says Cook. "A robot is only useful if the neat person accepts it."

In some cases, a non-humanoid robot may be exactly what you need. Robotic animals, such as Paro, begin to be used as pets in animal-free nursing homes or as additional companions for people with dementia or learning disabilities.

Many modern robots are function-specific, such as robotic vacuums, rather than being multifunctional mechanoids. Designing a robotic system to perform several functions can be difficult, especially if their tasks are not related. In the near future at least, we will have the best chance of having several robotic assistants, all designed for different functions. However, this poses the problem of knowing where to store them all when they are not being used.

Recent progress has also been made in integrating smart home technology with robotic systems to create homes with integrated automated systems. One such example is Chiron; a research project to develop a ceiling-mounted rail system that would allow an assistance robot to move from room to room, using room-specific adapters for the environment in which they are located .

Given the inherent challenges to navigation and mobility faced by an autonomous robot in a home environment, this rail-mounted system provides insight into how assistive robots could be integrated into the very fabric of the robot. our houses. However, this system also presents its own challenges.

To allow a ceiling-mounted rail network, significant changes to the house would be required before the robot can operate. Of course, custom homes could be built with the existing rail system installed. However, the significant costs associated with rail facilities would be a significant challenge.

Robots do not necessarily replace people's jobs, but they can improve their work – Helen Dickinson

Ultimately, caregivers will increase rather than replace human caregivers, as robotics could never replicate the camaraderie that comes from a caregiver in the flesh. Even the most advanced simulation of a person by a robot could really imitate a human being.

The fact that assistive technologies perform physically demanding tasks would allow caregivers to function more efficiently. "Robots do not necessarily replace people's jobs, but they can improve their work," says Helen Dickinson, a public services expert at the University of New South Wales. "It's not just about getting the most physical tasks, although it's certainly interesting to let the robots perform tasks that require patience and repetition, where people are mistreated and where the fatigue of compassion can be a factor. "

It is quite possible that we will have some day-care technologies at home, but the most advanced systems will not be there for some time, nor how they are described in fiction. Instead, our homes themselves could become our caregivers, with robotic units becoming an extension of the home. Thus, the uprising of the robots could be reduced to their simple refusal to do the dishes.

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