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Robot promoters look to Social Security set

The elderly are being eyed as a potential market for personal-assistant robots that could help them live independently longer. Photo gallery: Robots in action

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--The next major advance in personal robotics is aimed straight at the "Matlock" generation.

Robots for the elderly were one of the hot topics at the RoboNexus conference here on Saturday, as robot advocates and start-up companies consider new frontiers for robots in the home.

The Roomba vacuum cleaner has shown there's a market for smart machines performing household tasks. But the next generation of domestic helper machines will be far more capable, handling tasks ranging from cooking dinner to cleaning the litter box, predicted robotics consultant and author Joanne Pransky.

"In 25 years, I don't think we'll have to do any of the household chores unless we want to," she said. "If you cook, it'll be a hobby, not something you have to do."

Such robotic assistance would be especially helpful for elderly people with diminishing physical skills, Pransky said, allowing them to live independently longer.

That's precisely the pitch made by PALS Robotics, a Canadian start-up launched by robotics pioneer Joseph Engelberger to develop robots specialized for elder care. The company hopes to have 100 beta units at work in the next three to four years.

A well-designed, voice-activated elderbot would handle tasks such as putting away the groceries, helping the owner out of the bathtub and preparing meals. Such a robotic assistant would delay the need to move the senior into a skilled nursing facility and offer a cost-effective alternative to in-home nursing care, said company President Andrew Silverthorne, who anticipates significant Medicare support once the company has robots to send out into the field.

"We think this is going to move along pretty quickly because there's a direct economic payback," Silverthorne said. "Every month you delay an older American's entry into a nursing home, you save the system thousands of dollars."

PALS--an acronym for Personal Assistance Living System--robots would automatically hook into a central network for software upgrades and to share artificial intelligence advances, Silverthorne said. "Once one robot learns a better way to open a jar of pickles, they'll all be better at opening a jar of pickles," he said.

Further down the road, the company hopes artificial intelligence will evolve to give the robots more humanlike interaction with their owners. "The goal is that they'll become something like a real companion," Silverthorne said, adding that silicon-based companions might have certain advantages. "My grandpa loves to tell the same stories over and over again--what better audience for that than a robot?"

Los Angeles-based RoboDynamics has less ambitious but more immediate plans for MILO, its customizable design for personal-assistant robots. CEO Fred Nikgohar said MILO units are designed for "telepresence," allowing remote surveillance of a location via the mobile robot's video and audio sensor.

Beta testers have included a robot enthusiast who put a MILO device in his grandfather's Florida home, where the device acts as an interactive medical monitor.

"He sees Grandpa has been sleeping for what seems like a long time, and he knows to alert someone to check on him," said Nikgohar, who sees a significant market for such devices. "Anything that allows older people to stay at home safely, I think there's going to be interest in that as the elderly population grows," he said.

Whether Grandma and Grandpa want a robot in their home is a different matter. Any personal robot has to overcome culturally bred distrust of humanoid machines--the "Frankenstein factor''--Pransky said. But such fears can be overcome creating robots that solve significant real-life problems and pay attention to some particular design principles, Pransky said, citing the "Uncanny Valley" theory of robot anthropomorphism.

"It basically says people will accept a robot better if it looks somewhat like a human but not too much like a human," she said. "If it looks too much like a human, that makes people nervous."