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August 20, 2014

Family Robots – The Next Big Thing?

by George Putic

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us.

Several years after it was introduced to the world, the advanced Japanese humanoid robot Asimo is still serving only as a demonstration and experimentation platform. Even if available for purchase, it would be too expensive for ordinary families.

It is much easier and cheaper to build a robot like Jibo, which uses simple movements and has the ability to interact with people through sound, pictures and touch.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Cynthia Breazeal created Jibo initially as a platform for exploring how people communicate with technology.

“Jibo as a robot is something that can move, with cameras that can move and see you and interact with you like a living thing, so to speak. It can bring content to life off the screen in an entirely new way,” explained Brezeal.

Jibo can remind you about appointments, take photos, entertain people and tell stories to children.

Breazeal said it also incorporates touch-sensitive technology.

“People often communicate through touch, so they might pat Jibo if it does something that they like and Jibo can actually learn from that,” said Breazeal.

Therapists at Amici di Nico Autism Center, in Lecce, Italy, use a small talking robot to treat autistic children.

11-year old Marco has shown great improvement in focusing and communication since he started playing with the robot that carefully keeps track of the child's behavior, said engineer Giuseppe Palestra.

"We would like to be one step ahead of state of the art, so that we can make the human-robot interaction better, and let's say 'humanize' the interaction between the robot and the child," said Palestra.

Researchers say they want to develop robots that can be programmed for individual patients, because each child reacts differently to outside stimuli.

French researcher Pierre Lebeau’s family robot Keecker was designed as an entertainment platform that can follow its owner around.

“I came up with the idea of a computer with a projector inside and a great sound system and a camera, something that can move and go to any room to give me a kind of TV-like experience, but anywhere I want without the cables and the complexity,” said Lebeau.

Researchers say robots intended for entertainment may soon be on the market with prices ranging from about $500 to $5,000 - still expensive for ordinary buyers. Therapeutic robots are still in the experimental phase but they too point to what we can expect from artificial intelligence in the near future.