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Robots: Almost Becoming Commonplace

  • Posted On: 4th June 2014

By Mark D. Wiederhold & Brenda K. Wiederhold

The word “robot” comes from the Czech word robota, meaning forced labor, and drudgery, and was coined by Czech writer Karel Capek in his play R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robotics), published in 1920. The term “robotics” first appeared in Isaac Asimov’s science fiction short-story “Liar,” in 1941. While literature conceived robots as supernatural, the concept of robots in real life had actually existed for quite some time. Among his many other scientific blueprints, Leonardo de Vinci had already developed designs for a humanoid mechanical knight robot in 1495. Although mechanical devices were used for entertainment and theater, it wasn’t until the 1900s that mechanical robots would start to resemble robots as we know them today. The first industrial robot, Unimate, was created by George Devol in the 1950s, and was used in the assembly lines at General Motors. Factories and large manufacturing companies were the first sector to integrate and embrace robots for their ability to work efficiently and accurately, while also relieving humans from the burden of physical labor. Since the invention of the computer chip in the 1950s there have been three main functions that define a robot. It must be able to: act on environmental stimuli, sense, and perform logical reasoning.

As the baby boom generation reaches retirement age and life expectancy continues to increase, there has been an increasing demand on healthcare needs. People living longer does not necessarily mean that people are living healthier lives, and as the population grows older, care for the elderly has become a dilemma that many people are struggling to address. Robotic technologies have the potential to alleviate some of these issues. Robotic systems not only can perform activities that cannot be performed by humans, but they can also reduce labor costs, increase independence and social participation, and increase quality of care. In recent years, a large amount of robotics research has focused on the prevention and diagnosis of illness, helping the disabled and chronically ill in their daily lives, assisting professional care and assisting surgical procedures, and has also largely focused on rehabilitation. Rehabilitation robotics has extended into the fields of assisted motor-coordination therapy, physical training, and mental, cognitive and social therapy. Not only are rehabilitation robots available to the commercial market, but they can also be used at home, as opposed to only in the clinic, making them accessible and convenient.

Assisted motor-coordination therapy treats injuries to the brain or nervous system that impair motor skills and coordination. While there is much that is still unknown about how the brain works, repeated movement is believed to eventually lead to the restoration of brain function and the ability to control movement. Robots have been developed to aid patients in repetitive rehabilitation in the upper and lower extremities. These robots help guide the movements of limbs to ensure optimal effects from therapy, and can regulate force feedback. Hocoma’s Lokomat is used in gait-impaired patients to improve mobility following stroke, spinal cord injury, and neurological diseases and injuries. A robotic gait orthosis guides the patient’s legs on a treadmill, while the machine carefully assesses the patient’s movements. The Lokomat is able to preprogram training sessions that are individually adjusted to each patient, allowing for a faster recovery, while also reducing physical strain on the therapist.

Assisted physical training therapy utilizes robots for muscle sustaining therapies based on fundamental and repetitive motor activities. For many of these systems, clinical supervision is not required, allowing the patient to heal from home, with some utilizing only a regular PC. Assisted mental, cognitive and social therapies have also benefited greatly from robotic advancements. Their controllable behavior and ability for repeated actions allow robots an edge over human therapists since robots do not have the same physical demands as humans, such as patience, frustration, fatigue, and an hourly rate. People with communication disorders, such as autism, as well as disorders of the elderly like dementia where social interaction might be a challenge, have responded well to robotic systems. The commercially available Paro is a soft whitefurred seal that is equipped with tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture sensors. The robotic seal provides the same therapeutic benefits as animal therapy and can recognize the direction of voice and respond to its own name as well as greetings and praise, and can learn to behave in a way that its user prefers. Paro has proved to reduce patient stress and induce relaxation, and improved socialization in patients by stimulating interaction.

Overall, one of the major goals for robotics manufacturing companies is to introduce robots to the general public, and integrate them into people’s daily lives. This goal is slowly but surely being achieved. One robot that has already become widely known is the Roomba, developed by the iRobot company, and is a robotic vacuum cleaner that navigates its way through a space, cleaning up scraps along the way. Similarly, the University of Tokyo and the Information and Robot Technology Research Initiative (IRT) have teamed up with major companies like Toyota to develop a robot that performs basic household chores. The Home Assistant Robot is a humanoid that operates on two wheels and has two hands both equipped with three finger graspers. Its main functions are mopping the floor, picking up and carrying a tray of dishes, and doing the wash. The robot has sensors on its head to locate objects in front of it, and is trained to repeat tasks that it fails to carry out properly.

Assistive technologies for the elderly and disabled have become a major focus in developing new robotic technologies. Within the last ten years, Carnegie Mellon University’s People and Robots Laboratory, along with the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing, Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, collaborated on a project for developing a robot nurse. The NurseBot project aimed to develop a personal service robot that can assist the elderly with everyday tasks. Their prototype, Pearl, a four-foot-tall autonomous mobile robot with a humanoid face can recognize speech and is able to communicate through a touch screen mounted on its torso area. Their next step is to program Pearl to remind patients to take medication, go to the doctor, and prevent them from getting lost. Pearl would be a live-in robot assistant to elderly who are ill or who have no one to help care for them, providing an alternate option to nursing homes, and helping individuals live independently for a longer period of time. Pearl is also being used as a tool to observe how people respond to humanoid robots by assessing which physical features are appealing, what tasks are most important to a patient, as well as developing an increased vocabulary to improve the overall robot experience.

Increasing mobility and agility in robots is important when attempting to apply human tasks to robots. Japan has been working diligently on this challenge since the 1980s when Honda Motor Co. began working on a bipedal robot. In 1996, they released the very first autonomous bipedal humanoid robot, and in 2000, created an updated version of the initial prototype that was more compact and lightweight, appropriately calling it ASIMO which stands for “advanced step in innovative mobility.” ASIMO has been greatly improved in the meantime, includes an infrared and CCD camera, and an array of sensors such as optical, ultrasonic, and floor surface sensors. It can walk, run six kilometers in an hour, swerve from left to right, grasp objects with grip force sensors, and walk alongside someone, holding their hand, while maintaining the same speed as the person.

Japan is a worldwide leader in robotics and their development of improved robotic technologies has not only skyrocketed in the past few decades, but the country is swiftly embracing robots into their culture. This past year Japan introduced Geminoid-F, a “fembot” who took the stage alongside human actors while being controlled by humans backstage. Japan has also been developing robots for the purpose of learning. Assistant and substitute teachers have been introduced to classrooms throughout Japan, and their presence is welcomed as being an aid to education. Japan’s robotic innovation and swift embrace of robots stems from their overall outlook on technology, and their point of view differs significantly from the attitudes expressed in many Western cultures. Japan’s history of Shinto and Buddhist teachings emphasize the interconnectedness with all things and a respect for both animate and inanimate beings. Robotic innovation in Japan dates back to the 17th century with a tradition of making mechanized dolls called karakuri ningyo that were used in performances similar to puppet shows. By contrast, the U.S. has focused on an ongoing discussion about the dangers and potential threats of robots.

Medicine has profited greatly from new robotic technologies, allowing, for example, robot-assisted surgeries so intricate and complicated that the human hand often struggled to accomplish them. The da Vinci Surgical System made by Intuitive Surgical was introduced to the world of medicine in 2000 and has since grown in popularity. The da Vinci system consists of a surgeon’s console, a patient-side cart that includes four interactive robotic arms, an InSite Vision System, and EndoWrist surgical instruments. Sitting at the console, a surgeon views a 3-D image of the surgical field, while grasping the master controls below the display. The system scales and filters the surgeon’s hand, wrist, and finger movements, and translates them to the surgical instruments on the patient-side cart where the actions are then performed on the patient in real-time. With its excellent range of motion, fine tissue manipulation, and intuitive control as well as minimal invasiveness, the da Vinci is a remarkable tool for surgeons dealing with areas of the body that require immense care and require tiny, intricate procedures.

Robot-assisted surgery is also becoming more common as products such as the ROBODOC are introduced to the market. Approved by the FDA to assist in orthopedic surgeries, ROBODOC has been particularly successful in assisting with hip replacements due to its specialized high-speed drill that surpasses manual precision with a less amount of trauma to the patient. Urology has also benefited greatly from robot- assisted surgery due to the level of precision required to manipulate the tiny vessels that reside in that part of the body.

Over the years the military has invested considerable time and resources in the development of robotics. Foster-Miller, a U.S.- based military robotics manufacturer has developed a line of military robots called the TALON Operations. TALON robots are divided into “families” by size and function and range from explosive ordnance disposal (EODs) that remove and dispose of grenades, to Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS), a remotely-operated vehicle that has weapons such as rifles, machine guns, and grenade launders mounted directly on top.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) also works to develop new technologies for the military. One of their latest projects is the Autonomous Robotic Manipulation (ARM) program. ARM is a four-year program that is trying to lift some of the limitations in robots’ function and execution. The goal of the program is to develop software and hardware that will increase the autonomy of robots and reduce the amount of human interaction required by the robot, while improving the execution and performance of the tasks performed. DARPA is also planning to release a similar system for the public to experiment with, which will allow anyone to write tasks and watch a robot carry them out.

The Telemedicine and Advance Technology Research Center (TATRC), part of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command, has developed the Battlefield Extraction- Assist Robot (BEAR). BEAR is roughly the size of an adult male and is designed to lift and carry large objects up to 500 lbs. for long distances and set them down gently, maneuvering through rough terrains, over obstacles, and even up and down stairs, adjusting its speed to adapt to its surroundings. BEAR is remotely operated and includes motion control, pressure and touch sensors, and has tank-like tracks on its corresponding thigh and calf areas that allow it to balance upright on its hips, knees, and lower wheels, standing upright. It can also crouch low to the ground and even move while almost lying flat, slithering on the ground while holding a person or object. BEAR’s main purpose in the battle zone is to find wounded soldiers and carry them to safety and BEAR has been especially useful when rescues need to be carried out in dangerous environments or for disaster rescue missions. Similar designs have been adopted by health care systems for the transport of elderly and disabled patients.

TATRC has also focused energy on improving medical robots, especially for military use. From electronic information carriers (EICs), a portable wireless storage device that carries soldier’s medical records, to a non-invasive brain ultrasound that assess cerebral vascular activities and measures accurate blood flood flow velocity in patients who have experienced traumatic brain injuries, TATRC’s technological progress has allowed medical care to become more mobile and accessible, creating instruments that are easily transported and provide accurate information.

The U.S. has also utilized the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), one of the most popular being the Predator drone. While UAVs are used for reconnaissance, they have recently been armed with missiles, and are increasingly being used for attack missions. This has caused much controversy, as some people feel that there are unresolved ethical questions regarding responsibility of a robot’s actions, especially as they become more and more autonomous. A common question is “Who is to blame when there is a malfunction that ends in unintended casualties?” No international laws have been developed so far concerning robots, and the question of how to regulate them remains unanswered. Indeed, robotics has come a long way in the past century, from the first industrial robot to humanoid robots that can speak and even act somewhat independently. While this is true, it is evident that robots still have a long way to go, and like their human creators, have many flaws that still need to be addressed. Accuracy and precision can be further enhanced and learning how humans respond to robots in everyday life is an ongoing project. Robots are an important part of our future, and the time to research them is now.

Mark D. Wiederhold, M.D., Ph.D., FACP                                                                 Virtual Reality Medical Center                                                                                         San Diego, California                                                               

Brenda K. Wiederhold, Ph.D., MBA, BCIA                                                            Virtual Reality Medical Institute                                                                               Belgium                                                                                               

Brenda Wiederhold About Brenda Wiederhold
President of Virtual Reality Medical Institute (VRMI) in Brussels, Belgium. Executive VP Virtual Reality Medical Center (VRMC), based in San Diego and Los Angeles, California. CEO of Interactive Media Institute a 501c3 non-profit Clinical Instructor in Department of Psychiatry at UCSD Founder of CyberPsychology, CyberTherapy, & Social Networking Conference Visiting Professor at Catholic University Milan.

Written by Brenda Wiederhold

President of Virtual Reality Medical Institute (VRMI) in Brussels, Belgium. Executive VP Virtual Reality Medical Center (VRMC), based in San Diego and Los Angeles, California. CEO of Interactive Media Institute a 501c3 non-profit Clinical Instructor in Department of Psychiatry at UCSD Founder of CyberPsychology, CyberTherapy, & Social Networking Conference Visiting Professor at Catholic University Milan.