The world population is rapidly aging -- at least in developed countries. The number of seniors will explode in the next two decades. So researchers everywhere are trying to find new ways to help elderly people to continue to live at home. This is why a team from Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan and Stanford University has spent the last four years to design Pearl, a robot specifically designed to help old people. Pearl has a humanoid aspect and is 4-feet high. Still, don't rush to the store to buy one for your old folks. According to this article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it costs more than $100,000 and is not entirely ready for mass production.
With movable facial features mounted atop her 4-foot high collection of computers, motors, plugs and wires, she's the product that most closely resembles the image conjured by the term "robot."
Here are two views of Pearl, taken from this page from Carnegie Mellon's Sara Kiesler, a psychologist and professor of computer science involved in the project (Credits: Unknown).
What's the current status of the project?
[Pearl is] already able to guide herself through an area at a pace of up to 50 centimeters a second -- a slow walk, for humans -- while avoiding objects in her path. When her hardware and software are working well, Pearl can verbalize scripted reminders to people, such as it's time to take their medicine.
Pearl herself has had fits and starts, as a second-generation prototype suffering from the natural turnover in the project of some its key computer scientists, as well as a serious hard-drive crash last year. She's $100,000 worth of circuitry and hardware that doesn't yet hear, talk, recall and react the way her inventors envision, and won't do so for a decade or possibly much longer.
What kind of improvements can we expect in the years to come?
Down the road, programmers aim to give her the intelligence to monitor people and react to unusual variations in behavior. If a person hasn't visited the bathroom in a long time, a reminder will be offered. If a person hasn't come out of the bathroom or moved from a chair in an unusually long amount of time, Pearl would seek an explanation and summon help if there's no answer. In the long range, she might have manipulating arms, instead of her current siderails, to pick up or move things for people.
Even for members of the project, this still sounds very ambitious.
"From a robotic domain, topics such as living with a person, sharing the same space, interacting with a person, are the cutting edge in robotics," said professor Sebastian Thrun, pioneer of the project at Carnegie Mellon. "When it's dealing with a person, all of these uncertainties come up. What does the person want? Where does the person go next, and how does it find the person? ... It's like a dog that has to learn to adapt to you and understand your desires."
For more information about Pearl, you can check "Technology assists when memory falters," a news release from the University of Michigan. Martha Pollack, electrical engineering and computer science professor at the same university, who is developing software for Pearl with her team, also gives insights on the project in "Intelligent Cognitive Orthotics."
And for an additional photograph, you can look at "Picture of Health," a short story from the Washington Post (free registration needed).
Sources: Gary Rotstein, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 4, 2004; and various websites