Uncanny Caring–the Future of Robots

The Japanese have been working on human assistance robots for over a decade, in response to the demographic squeeze of an aging population without enough people in the next generation to attend to their needs.

Toyota has been leading the way, building on their innovations in industrial robots, which date back to the 70s. Honda, which started in the 80s, has created Asimo, which it calls, “The World’s Most Advanced Humanoid Robot.” It can climb stairs, navigate environments, and learn the needs of humans. Asimo and Toyota’s Human Support Robots represent the ideal of “carebots,” robots which can replace or supplement the work of nursing home aids and other caregivers.

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Yet for all their astonishing advances in mobility and responsiveness, all of them look like robots. The little lady to the right is Toyota’s Robina, who wouldn’t fool the Jetson’s Rosie.

Now, starring at Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, are Kodomoroid and Otoroid, two robots that seemed to have leapt the uncanny valley. If their soft faces and smooth skin are grafted on to assistance robots, we will be left wondering about our own humanity.

But there is still the very human question of price. In a 2011 story, the BBC cautioned that robots so far have been priced far too high to serve as the human replacements the Japanese had hoped for. Worse, “even in ‘robot friendly'” Japan, according to the article, patients prefer–who knew–being taken care of by human beings.

The most likely devices to receive widespread adoption are robotic aids for human tasks, such as lifters that can spare the back of an attending nurse and “go-fer” bots that can bring items to bed-ridden or paralyzed patients. None of these devices need to look human, but we wonder, if eventually there will be two paths of robotic development: budget bots that perform a limited range of dedicated tasks and make no pretensions of humanity, such as the current Roomba, and luxury models, that are the astonishing descendants of Kodomoroid.

There’s already a third way. There are bots that can be remotely operated, with “faces” that are two-way computer screens.  InTouch Health’s “remote presence devices” have already been in US hospitals for several years. As CNN reports, Europe is now testing prototypes of similar devices for home use. Since most of these devices are based on tablets mounted on a remotely controlled moving stand, they would seem to be an ideal project for DIY robotocists.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wyl72Re5110]