Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Article Type: Editorial From: Industrial Robot: An International Journal, Volume 35, Issue 3.
In the world of mobile robots, it is very easy to wander down certain development paths, lured on by the challenge of technology or the attraction of dollars or the satisfaction of altruistic applications. Like hikers uncertain of their position, it is all too easy to take the downward path.
I consider it a great shame that so much money is being spent on military robotics and toys, while other applications areas are totally ignored. Professor Bryan Bridge gives three excellent examples of alternative applications in his viewpoint in this issue. Rather controversially, I would like to argue the case against developing robots to help the elderly.
It is well established that we are all living longer these days and the population of the planet continues to increase, and more to the point, the percentage of the population that is considered elderly is also increasing. If you classify elderly people as being those who are beyond working age then you can take the UK Government approach and simply declare that people should work longer. The main problem with this is that while people are living longer we are not in general staying healthy and alert for longer we just stay old for an extra ten years or so.
As people become old they can easily become more and more isolated. Physical limitations may keep people inside their homes while hearing and vision and mental acuity degrade to further isolate the individual. I do not believe that this sense of isolation can be overcome by technology. What people crave is the company of people and not machines. If we provide our elderly with domestic robots that can perform a wide variety of chores then are we in fact just fooling ourselves that “they are all right they have robots” so that we can carry on with our own busy lives without giving the elderly even a fraction of our precious time.
If our aim is to develop robots that add to people's quality of life then we need to be careful of our motives. While I would hope to have made a brief case against the development of robots to help the elderly, I would in contrast give my full support behind robot developments to help the physically disabled. These would certainly tick my “quality of life” box, and what I believe are needed are robots that have a small degree of autonomy but which are in the main teleoperator controlled. By retaining, the person in the loop we not only make the system technically simpler but we also give back to people at least some of the physical abilities that nature or accident has deprived them. Physically disabled people that have lost the use of their limbs can regain control of their lives by controlling “their” robot.
The biggest challenge of this is not the design of the robot or its arms or grippers these are now easily sufficiently advanced for the job in hand instead the challenge is to develop the interface between the person and the robot. Each disabled individual will have their own unique set of abilities, and the interface, or more realistically a whole family of interfaces, needs to be able to give them as much control as possible.
Those people who can control a mouse will be lucky indeed, but quadriplegics will need us to interpret head, or eye or mouth movements in a wide variety of ways.