Robots for Grandma: 3 Big Problems to Tackle as the Population Ages

A future of robotic assistants and self-driving cars isn’t so far away. Just look at some of the luxury cars on the market today, Rethink Robotics founder Rodney Brooks says. 

The Mercedes-Benz S Class, for example, is loaded with sensors that can detect the roadway and take over the car’s safety systems, from tightening the seatbelts and rolling up the windows to applying enough brakes to guide the car back into a lane or stop it completely.

“I prefer to think of it as an elder-care robot,” Brooks says. “We are going to be able to drive longer before our kids take the keys from our cold, dead hands.”

That’s more than just a little Baby Boomer humor. In the U.S. and beyond, populations are getting older, pointing to a future with far more elderly people relative to the number of working-age people than ever before.

Those older people will need plenty of services. And, since he’s a robotics guy, Brooks feels pretty safe in betting that robots will play a big role in delivering those services. “This is going to be driving robotics technology and information technology,” Brooks said Tuesday at Xconomy’s Boston 2034 conference.

The key to fulfilling that promise is more research and experimentation on advanced robotics performance. Brooks, who also co-founded iRobot and served as an MIT professor for many years, noted that when he started working in the industry in the 1970s, there were only a handful of mobile robots.

That number steadily increased, and today, the technology industry is moving well beyond Roombas. Amazon paid $775 million two years ago for Massachusetts-based warehouse robot company Kiva Systems, and Google more recently purchased mobile-robot maker Boston Dynamics. And then there’s the fleet of 200 self-driving cars that Google plans to test, starting later this year.

Brooks says a surge of interest is now needed in robotic systems that can assist people in closer quarters, too. Older people generally prefer to stay in their homes as they age, rather than being sent off to a care facility. But there are at least three big problems to solve before Granny is going to be helped along by a trusty robotic assistant:

Mobility: iRobot has police and military robots on tracks that can go up some stairs, and Boston Dynamics is among the relatively few other companies trying to tackle stair-climbing. But there needs to be more work done before in-home mobility is relatively easy, Brooks says.

Manipulation: Robots are much better at moving things around than they used to be, but they’re still no match for the engineering marvel that is the human hand. Rethink Robotics has shipped about 200 of the company’s Baxter robots to universities, Brooks says, with hopes that researchers will be able to come up with robotic hands that are more like the human version.

Messiness: Most people’s homes are more cluttered than the testing environments that you’re likely to find in a robotics lab, and that presents a big challenge for robotic navigation. The good news here is that products like the Xbox Kinect have greatly increased the number of people working on 3D sensing by getting the gaming industry involved, Brooks says.

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