I’m currently teaching a research seminar on robots and artificial intelligence, and I recently posed a question to my students. Say you have an 85-year-old grandmother who lives in a nursing home. She lives a couple hours away, so neither you nor your family can visit her as much as you’d like. One day, someone from the home calls you and says they’ve just received a couple of robots—androids like the ones in the video below. Would you like one of them to visit your grandmother a couple times a week? The responses ranged from “Sure, why not?” to “absolutely not.” After our discussion, I said something about how it might seem like a silly scenario, but that it’s entirely possible that their grandmas will interact with robots. What I didn’t think about during that conversation is that it’s even more likely they’ll spend time with their grandmas via a robot.
This is like Skype, except that it’s integrated into something a little more like a droid and a little less like a computer. The official name is “telepresence robot,” which makes it sound as though it ought to look like a TARDIS. I’m sure some company will eventually make that model. Regardless, a telepresence bot wins over a computer, big time. Imagine being able to walk next to your grandma into the dining room or just shuffle around the halls of the nursing home, to really see how she’s doing? You could be on your iPhone or at your computer at home, while the robot acts as your physical ambassador, going where you can’t go. Unless you’ve figured out how to be two places at once, then you don’t need robots.
The MantaroBot comes in a few different models, with the classic version resembling an old overhead projector. Conferencing with grandma, or doctors, or other staff, is no problem. I wonder what my colleagues would say if I attended a meeting via this kind of device. Better yet, I could go to class that way.
Robots also work in the opposite direction, giving mobility back to people who don’t get around so well anymore. Anybot has a sweet little VGo that likes to get dolled up in a bowtie and wear the user’s face as a hat. An 80-year-old mother who couldn’t get to Paris for her son’s wedding sent an Anybot across the pon, with a blown up cardboard cut-out of herself pasted on the front. She hopped on the Anybot website, drove that thing around, watched the wedding, heard the toasts, and even cut a rug.
If this is the kind of robot we’re talking about, it’s pretty hard to object. We’ve already got smart technologies that monitor the movements of the elderly, helping to control the temperature of the house, as well as the lighting and security. Smart refrigerators monitor food consumption and expiration dates, smart toothbrushes help keep the dentures sparkling, and smart contacts measure glucose levels. There are brain-controlled wheelchairs and bionic limbs. Grandma’s not going to think twice about hanging out with a robot. Just don’t tell her that these devices can be hacked.
Oh, and keep your eyes open for HERB, the Home Exploring Robot Butler. It’s not here yet, but it will be. Start saving up now.
“What if grandma likes the robot more than me?” one of my students said. “That’s a very real possibility,” I said. And that is how the robots are going to take over, not with a war, but through our grandparents.