Rise of the Robots: Machines Custom-Made to Care for You

The next generation of robots is poised to acquire the very thing that makes us human: our empathy.

By Drew Nelles
Rise of the Robots

Brian is ugly. His face sags under the weight of many worries. He’s rarely seen without an unflattering blue University of Toronto baseball cap and T-shirt. Stationary, legless, he perches on his stand like a strange mechanical bird, three fingers on each hand. Goldie Nejat, Brian’s creator and an assistant professor in the University of Toronto’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, says he looks this way because he’s still a prototype and also because, when fashioning him from silicone rubber, metal and wire, she kept in mind the “uncanny valley” effect. This phenomenon was first noted in 1970 by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who found that our affection for robots rises as they become more lifelike, until we meet one that’s uncannily realistic, at which point our emotions plummet into a valley of disgust. We prefer robots to look like robots. 

It’s crucial that Brian doesn’t weird people out because he’s a socially assistive robot, intended for use in long-term care facilities. Thanks to a speech synthesizer, Brian is able to vary the pitch and tone of his voice. Servomotors help him rearrange his face—which looks delicate and somehow reconstructed, as if belonging to a burn victim—into a smile or a frown. His affect-detection software can decode the mood behind your words and body language. The sum of these parts is a 70-kilogram motivational coach; he’s designed to entice seniors into a memory card game to combat dementia, and to talk them into eating a meal to fight chronic undernutrition.  

Unveiled in 2009, Brian has made great strides in his programming: he’s now wittier and better at picking up cues. The only robot of his kind in Canada, Brian is also among the first health-care robots in the industry to possess social intelligence: he can, on the fly, alter his behaviour in response to a user’s emotions. Brian is here to reassure, encourage, congratulate. Assistive robotics is one of the fastest-growing areas in the field; and as its products evolve into interactive, emotional humanoids, health-care experts have shown a keen interest. After years of field tests, Nejat and her team are designing other helpmates like Brian, anticipating that friendly, autonomous robots will eventually become an integral part of daily life.  

Although its roots stretch back to the 1940s, the contemporary field of social robotics began in earnest during the late 1990s with machines like Kismit, a talking head whose synthetic nervous system allowed it to shift its mouth, eyes and eyebrows into an array of natural-seeming expressions. While social-robotics research has continued to roll out new breakthroughs—real-time speech recognition, laser sensors to steer self-directed machines—the promise of robots like Brian comes at a critical demographic moment. According to the 2011 census, nearly 15 per cent of Canadians are now 65 or older, a number expected to climb to almost 20 per cent by 2031. At the same time, some economists warn of a skills crisis in health care: the Canadian Chamber of Commerce reports that we will face a shortfall of 60,000 nurses over the next decade.  

Robots like Brian, says Nejat, can help. Some will provide companionship for seniors or pester them to take their medication; others will be more hands on, keeping tabs on post-op patients or teaching those with mobility issues to walk again. Some will be on the market for daily home use; while others will operate as part of a fleet owned by a single institution, with a different robot attending to a patient’s every individual need. “That’s our objective,” Nejat says. “Ten, 20 years down the line, you will see these robots in private homes, nursing homes and hospitals.” 

But how close are we to a future of Brians—self-aware computers that will take the shape of lifelike men and women; that will play with our children and tend to our parents; that will know us, love us, grieve with us? And is that a future we even want?

Next: How robots around the world are already
helping humans in need.

(Photo: Sylvain Dumais, Robot Design and Conception by Daniel Finkelstein and Phillipe Savard)


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