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Retired bookkeeper Monica Perez is tempted to tell the Intuition Robotics ElliQ robot she’s beta testing, “I love you.”
“It greets me in the morning in a cheerful way. It uses my name frequently, so I feel very special to it,” says Perez, 63, who has epilepsy and severe arthritis and lives alone in a small Beacon, New York, studio apartment. Without prompting, ElliQ asks Perez if she’s gotten out, what she had for lunch, if she’s taken her medications or wants to hear a joke. While Perez is certainly aware that ElliQ is a machine with a tablet, cameras, motors, sensors and a head that bows and nods on top of a stationary base, she acknowledges a kind of “relationship” with the robot, which could pass for an extra on the Pixar movie lot.
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“I don’t think she could take the place of people, and I don’t think she can take the place of pets,” Perez says. “I believe that she’s a good adjunct.”
Life’s daily challenges can be hard enough as people age in place. Confronting them becomes more taxing when loved ones, housekeepers and health care providers aren’t around to help with chores or keep a lonely person company.
Can a robot stand in for a caregiver or companion in the home? And if it can, is that a good thing?
“The answer to both questions is yes, although there is a caveat to what degree,” says Colin Angle, chief executive officer of iRobot, best known for the popular Roomba robot vacuums that have been autonomously cleaning floors and carpets for nearly two decades.
Not living up to The Jetsons
Robots have long pushed beyond the realm of science fiction. Designed for a specific purpose, they can provide genuine utility in the home, as Roomba and its ilk have shown.
But even with technological leaps in machine learning, artificial intelligence, computer vision and facial recognition, domestic droids encounter numerous obstacles. No two homes are the same. Robots are extraordinarily costly. Fair or not, they haven’t met the expectations of folks fantasizing about employing The Jetsons’ robot maid, Rosie.
Alas, no robot available today, or realistically anytime soon, is going to wash the dishes or fold your laundry. Nor can robots physically accomplish what caregivers can do, such as helping an older person get out of bed, bathe and dress, says Mike Dooley, chief executive of Labrador Systems in Los Angeles.
Connecticut officials initially declined to cover a robotic arm costing tens of thousands of dollars that could help Carissa Decelles of Willamantic open the fridge and pour herself a drink, WVIT-TV in West Hartford reported. Decelles, 30, has spinal muscular atrophy and is on Medicaid, but the state Department of Social Services called the Kinova Jaco robotic arm that she requested “unproven” and “experimental.” Bowing to pressure from media reports and her lawyer, the state reversed its decision.
‘Labrador Retriever’ robot debuts
In January at the CES trade show, Labrador and Dooley took the wraps off the Labrador Retriever, an autonomous nightstand-sized robot that can raise and lower itself between 25 and 38 inches like an accordion to reach certain objects. Labrador describes it as an “extra pair of hands.”
It can carry a laundry basket or lunch tray or schlep anything up to 25 pounds. It can also retrieve trays of up to 10 pounds each — including a tray of drinks it can pull out of the fridge — as well as hold your pills, eyeglasses and other objects.
The autonomous robot can avoid obstacles and navigate tight spaces, and you can control it by voice via Alexa, by touching a screen or through an app. You can also assign it virtual “bus stops” in the home, perhaps by your armchair, kitchen shelf or front door.
“We are focusing on helping people move things where they have an impairment or pain restricting their own movement,” Dooley says. “I think we’ve hit the nerve of an unmet need.”