What If Robots Could Cuddle?

I make hands,” the young man said nonchalantly.  Standing in the middle of a crowd of robotics researchers and developers, he introduced himself. I must admit the phrase and the imagery it generated made me pause for a moment. Given that I was speaking before nearly 200 roboticists at the Future of Robotics Summit, sponsored by the Massachusetts High Technology Leadership Council at Microsoft’s New England Research & Development Center in Cambridge, I quickly recovered and thought to myself…’of course you do.’


Robotics is taking on a variety of shapes and functions. Certainly far from the baby boomer childhood visions of ‘Robot’ in Lost in Space or the Jetson’s sassy ‘Rosie,’ roboticists today are designing systems that can perform work in extreme environments from space and the battlefield to daily work on factory and hospital floors.

My talk, Can Robotics Serve the New Requirements of Old Age?, asked the summit’s participants to think of how robotics and autonomous systems generally might respond to the diverse requirements of older adults and their families, as both a global human challenge and business opportunity.

Aging is not new to robotics researchers. For example, much of the current love affair around the promise of autonomous vehicles is centered on the assertion that these robotic cars will become safe transportation alternatives for older people. My MIT AgeLab colleagues researching these systems tell me there will be miles of transition before we see the highways switch from human to robot traffic. If driving is macro-mobility, getting around the house or a long-term care facility might be thought of as micro-mobility. In collaboration with our colleagues at the MIT Computer Science Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the Boston Home, the AgeLab has informed the development of a robotic wheel chair that supports the user’s independence and reduces staff workload.

Health monitoring and medication adherence has long been a target of opportunity for robotics. Carnegie Mellon’s Nursebot Project produced ‘Pearl’ designed to be a personable health assistant to remind older people to take their medications or to eat. 'She' also serves as a telepresence system connecting family caregivers and older relatives. AgeLab is exploring how Paro, a therapeutic robotic seal might provide the benefits of animal therapy in senior living and clinical environments. Other MIT students are working on Ollie the Otter to provide a friendly plush creature that may offer telepresence but in a ‘squishable’ package. Around the world, many researchers are working on innovative robotic applications to support caregivers and ensure the well-being of older people.

None of these tasks are easy to engineer. However, cleaning the house, directing a vehicle, offering a reminder, dispensing medications, or providing a video link to children or clinicians are well defined problems that are amenable to the logic of computer ‘if-then-else’ statements.

That brings me back to my new friend who “makes hands.” Hands, robotic or human, are obviously critical to doing ‘work.’ But hands are also used to touch, and touch is something that is often lost in old age. Due to choice, divorce or death many older people live alone. In the United States, more than 40% of women over age 65 live alone. In parts of Europe, that number is closer to 50% living solo. Decreased fertility rates have resulted in fewer children – and many of those children have moved from where mom and dad live to regions hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Robotics is rapidly developing. With the new realities of aging alone, robotic hands will be developed to do more than the daily work of helping you dress, or preparing your breakfast. They will also be far more than the current generation of social 'bots designed to communicate but not connect. The nextgen robotic hand will be the hand that touches yours. If robots can be made to touch with sensitivity, not just with mechanical precision, is the next step giving step a hug and then a cuddle? And, if so, would you cuddle with them?

 Image by Shutterstock

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