A humanoid robot as a companion for seniors?

Rye group gets glimpse of future interaction envisioned by MIT researchers

Lynn Rockwell

Nexi in listening, empathizing mode. (MIT Media Lab photo)

A three-member delegation from Rye Reflections traveled to the Milano Senior Center in Melrose, Mass. in mid-August to participate in a research study being conducted by the Media Lab of MIT, in collaboration with other universities.

We (myself, Bill Veazey and Catherine Stone) were invited to meet “Nexi”, a humanoid robot with mobility, dexterity, and social communication abilities. Study participants had to be “seasoned citizens”, over 60, so only one of us was actually eligible to participate with Nexi one-on-one, though the other two were allowed to ask the research assistants questions, take photos, and say hello to “her”.

Want to see and hear Nexi? Click here for a video of the robot in action.

The purpose of this preliminary research is to study how seniors respond to and interact with the robot. One of the designers’ hopes is that humanoid robots might serve in the future as companions and useful assistants to seniors. However, it is not yet known what and how seniors will reply to her pre-programmed questions, or what aspects of the interaction might need to be changed. Therefore, at this stage of the project, Nexi asks a series of personal questions, and the participant’s responses are recorded for further study. The MIT students are bringing her into several senior centers in the greater Boston area and inviting seniors to participate.

After signing a consent form, which also assures privacy, the participant is introduced to Nexi. To put folks more at ease, she has been “humanized” with a female-sounding voice, moving arms and hands, and an over-sized “face” with a working mouth. She starts by explaining some of her special features, such as microphones to determine the direction of sounds; cameras with which to see; mild lasers to determine distances; three wheels for balance and movement, and hands that are “very gentle”. The only prop in the room is a small table with a bowl of three balls that she can pick up and hold and which provide another way to interact and build trust.

Though her physical features are impressive, the true purpose of the research is social, so she begins asking a series of open-ended questions that are designed to elicit personal responses. The robot is unable to respond interactively yet, so she would often reply with a neutral “I don’t understand your question”, or “Okay”, or “Yes, I see.”

Several of the personal questions were prefaced by Nexi saying that “she” had had an experience and then asking if you had had a similar one, such as enjoying doing something or regretting doing something specific in your youth, or being punished for wrongdoing, or saying farewell to a friend who died. She made analogies, such as stating that some day she will join the outdated robots in the lab (i.e., die), and then asking the person what he or she thought about death. Overall, participants seemed to enjoy the experience of interacting with Nexi and were intrigued at the possibilities.

MIT Media Lab's Jun Ki Lee (left) facilitates conversation between senior citizen and Nexi. (Lynn Rockwell photo).

MIT researcher Jun Ki Lee explained that one future application might be to place a robot as a companion to a lonely senior citizen or to assist in lifting people in and out of beds, wheelchairs, and bathrooms. Often there can be one senior caring for another but needing the extra lifting strength that the robot can provide.

Another exciting possibility for humanoid robots might be for search and rescue in disasters. It is easy to imagine the advantages of sending robots into a potentially collapsing building or other disaster scene. It is hoped that the humanized features might put victims more at ease to respond to it than if it looked like a tank; especially the most vulnerable populations of children, seniors, and those with special needs (To get a sense of how such a rescue might work, click here for a video simulation.)

Preliminary research with the U.S. Navy is underway and could be just the beginning of a whole new world of robot friends.

September, 2009