Rise of the Helpful Machines

Meet 10 of the most advanced human-assist 'bots from around the world

The world's most sophisticated robots don't assemble trucks or cruise around Mars. They're designed to support our surging population of elderly and disabled citizens. Meet 10 of the most promising senior-friendly 'bots.

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Riba

A Forklift For Humans Birthplace Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, Japan Occupation Helps patients who are too weak to walk, sit, or stand on their own Why We Need It The number of Americans over age 65 will reach 71 million by 2030. RIBA (Robot for Interactive Body Assistance) is the only robot with arms designed to carry those people around. How It Works A powerful motor, plus 454 sensors embedded in RIBA’s arms, helps the robot lift and move people weighing up to 135 pounds. (Inventor Toshiharu Mukai and his colleagues aim to increase its strength next year when they test it in nursing homes in Japan.) For a comfortable ride, squishy skin made of urethane foam covers RIBA’s metallic frame. The robotic orderly can also recognize faces and voices and responds to commands such as, “RIBA, please help me off the couch.” On The Job By Next yearJohn B. Carnett

PerMMA

The Only Wheelchair with Robotic Arms Birthplace University of Pittsburgh Occupation Nurse: transports and feeds patients with spinal-cord injuries Why We Need It Today 4.3 million Americans rely on wheelchairs, yet few of those chairs are ideal for people with debilitating physical impairments, such as those of a quadriplegic. How It Works After Rory A. Cooper was partially paralyzed during a bicycle accident, he learned firsthand the limitations of conventional wheelchairs. Although he still had the use of his arms, many other paralyzed people he met did not. So he set out to build them a better chair. His Personal Mobility and Manipulation Appliance (PerMMA) features two robotic arms programmed to help users easily perform everyday tasks like cooking, dressing and shopping. Users can control the robotic arms from a touchpad, microphone or joystick, depending on their abilities. For now, each arm can support six pounds, but Cooper is designing a new arm strong enough to hold 150 pounds, pull a turkey out of the oven, or pick up a pot of spaghetti off the stove, he says. On The Job By 2020John B. Carnett

Kompaï

A Plainspoken Personal Assistant for Grandma Birthplace Robosoft, France Occupation Personal assistant: reminds seniors to take their meds and calls for help if needed Why We Need It It's a simple 'bot for the tech-challenged How It Works Kompaï's chief feature is its senior-friendly interface and congenial personality. Tell the Web-enabled robot you're not feeling well, and it thoughtfully asks, a€œWhere does it hurt?a€ and then e-mails your symptoms to your doctor. Kompaï can record a grocery list, set up videoconferences with doctors, and call 911. Around the house, it avoids stairways and knows when it's time to roll itself to its charging dock. Although it operates primarily by voice control, the robot also has a touchscreen with simple icons. Arms are optional. Robosoft CEO Vincent DupourquÃ(C) is marketing an open-source version, called RobuBox-KompaÏ, to developers, who can design their own software for the 'bot. On The Job By Next yearRobosoft

Herb

The Fastest, Most Capable Robo-Servant Birthplace Intel Labs in Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University Occupation Butler Why We Need It Who doesn't need reliable, competent help with household chores? a€œHERB is the most technologically advanced personal robot in existence,a€ says Intel senior researcher Siddhartha Srinivasa. How It Works Scientists at Intel and Carnegie Mellon built HERB (Home Exploring Robot Butler) on a nimble Segway base, so it can maneuver around kitchen cabinets and balance a tray of martinis without spilling a drop. It's smart, too. Image-recognition software lets the robot distinguish between objects, so when you ask for a soda it won't bring you juice. HERB can also imitate humans, learning to pick up objects the way its owners would. The team is refining software that will make the 'bot less prone to collisions in cluttered spaces and building another arm so that it can empty the dishwasher and fold laundry, even the dreaded fitted sheets. On The Job By 2025John B. Carnett

Tamer

A Robotic a€œTouch Therapista€ Soothes Anxiety Birthplace University of British Columbia Occupation Child Therapist Why We Need It An estimated 13 percent of kids aged 9 to 17 experience some kind of an anxiety disorder. How It Works This furry, touch-sensitive robo-bunny helps children with stress and anxiety disorders a€œtame their worry dragons,a€ says inventor Karon MacLean of the University of British Columbia. Sensors worn on the patient's body measure signs of stress such as increased heart rate and sweaty fingertips. The Tamer wiggles to help patients recognize these changesa€”a critical step in controlling their anxiety. Pressure sensors and accelerometers inside the robot also let it respond to touch. For instance, Tamer stiffens its ears when jabbed but then softens them and begins to purr as the patient gently pets it. a€œNo one else is using touchable, emotionally expressive robots in anxiety therapy,a€ says MacLean, who began testing the robot this summer with kids who have anxiety disorders. She ultimately hopes to build an at-home version for around-the-clock comfort. On The Job By 2014Martin Dee/UBC Public Affairs

Cyclops

A Legally Blind Robotic Guinea Pig for Testing Artificial Eyes Birthplace California Institute of Technology Occupation Simulates the visual experience of a blind person outfitted with a retinal implant Why We Need It Most vision implants are still too crude to test on humans. How It Works Cyclops, a $20,000, four-wheeled rover, is the world's first stand-in for the visually impaired, allowing researchers to test and refine image-processing software for prosthetic eyes on a robot instead of a person. Mounted to Cyclops's head is a remote-controlled camera that can pivot to capture the same view as a patient with that particular prosthesis would. If the robot can't tell the difference between a stairwell and a fireplace, researchers will know they need to refine their algorithms. On The Job By This yearJohn B. Carnett

Riser

A Fully Immersive Rehab Robot Birthplace University of British Columbia Occupation Rehabilitator Why We Need It Today's physical-therapy equipment for balance requires stroke victims to have enough strength to stand on their own, but that puts them at risk of more falls and injuries. How It Works The RISER (Robot for Interactive Sensory Engagement and Rehabilitation) is the only rehab system that can simulate a wide range of unstable situations while fully supporting a patient's body weight to help him regain his sense of balance after a stroke. Supported by a back brace, a patient stands on a Wii-board-like platform that can move in six directions. Virtual-reality goggles work in sync with the platform to guide users through different simulated activities, such as riding up an escalator or windsurfing. Patients can gradually attempt more-challenging balancing acts to speed up their recovery. The platform is also a powerful research tool in the quest to better understand the neurobiology of balance. When a patient stands on the platform and experiences a recording of his previous ride, electrodes attached to his scalp give scientists insight into how different brain regions are responding to the experience On The Job By 2015John B. Carnett

Raven 2

A Robo-Surgeon that Does the Work of Two Doctors Birthplace University of Washington and University of California at Santa Cruz Occupation Remotely operated surgeon Why We Need It Wounded soldiers, disaster victims and people who live in rural areas are rarely within reach of top-notch surgeons and medical centers. As inventor Jacob Rosen puts it, a€œThere's a doctor who's done the surgery once in his lifetime standing next to you, or an expert halfway around the world. Who do you choose?a€ How It Works The Raven surgical system is the first to allow two surgeons to remotely operate together on a patient. One surgeon could sit at a console in, say, Los Angeles, watching on a computer screen as the robotic arm she's manipulating with a joystick deftly slices into a patient lying on an operating table in North Dakota. Meanwhile, another surgeon at a console in New York wields the second set of robot arms. Rosen, a computer engineer at the University of California at Santa Cruz, designed software that allows surgeons to seamlessly operate the four arms without colliding them. On The Job By 2013John B. Carnett

Cardioarm

The Slinkiest Surgical Tool Birthplace Cardiorobotics and Carnegie Mellon University Occupation Surgical assistant: conducts minimally invasive heart surgery Why We Need It Heart surgery means slicing the chest, breaking the sternum, and splaying the ribs; recovery can take months. How It Works Carnegie Mellon University engineer Howie Choset's snake-shaped surgeon is only a centimeter long and weighs less than three ounces, yet it's packed with motors and joints that give it 102 degrees of freedom, letting it deftly wrap itself around organs and worm through intestines, bronchial tubes and other pathways used during endoscopic surgery. Its unprecedented flexibility, along with a tiny camera head, makes it easy to steer remotely using a joystick. a€œMake a quarter-inch turn one way, move an inch, make a quarter-inch turn another way, and boom!a€”you're behind the heart,a€ says Choset, the co-founder of Cardiorobotics, Inc. In February the robot performed a diagnostic procedure on a patient who otherwise would have required a surgeon to split her breastbone, which would have tacked months onto recovery. On The Job By 2012John B. Carnett

Taizo

The Richard Simmons of Robots Birthplace National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Japan Occupation Workout instructor Why We Need It Exercise can help senior citizens live longer, healthier lives, but their growing ranks will soon outnumber qualified fitness instructors. How It Works This two-foot-tall robot looks more like a miniature snowman than a personal trainer, but its 26 joints make it almost as flexible as a yogi. Taizo helps lead simple movement classes in Japan, mostly from a chair for the convenience of its seated students. Among its repertoire of 30 exercises, Taizo can stretch its arms wide and bend down to touch its toes. And although the robot is in great shape, it's not tirelessa€”after two straight hours of exercise, its batteries need recharging. Special motors allow the little guy to perform slow, methodical motions that are easy to imitate and help followers avoid muscle strain. Next month, developer General Robotix begins selling the robot's $10,000 frame to scientists for research. On The Job By Next yearAIST