In Therapy and Nursing
If I read the signs right, we are all likely to be in the hands of robots (assuming that we live long enough). Robotic care attendants for the elderly are being pioneered in Japan, in which longer life spans and dwindling family sizes have left many concerned about how to care for an aging population. Robotic solutions range from Wakamaru, a meter-tall humanoid bot designed by Mitsubishi, to a robotic human washing machine by Sanyo Electronics that provides baths at exactly the right temperature for nursing home residentswho can thus bathe themselves with only minimal movement. Wakamaru can phone for help with a camera phone and hold a conversation on the news it finds on the Internet, but don't expect any heavy lifting because Wakamaru doesn't have much in the way of haptic accoutrements.
But we can soon expect haptic features in our robot help; in fact, that kind of support is already on the board at places such as the Laboratory for Intelligent Mechanical Systems at Northwestern University and the University of Buffalo Automation, Robotics and Mechatronics Laboratory (ARM Lab), both of which seem keen to support the emergence of machines that will inhabit our factories, homes, and cars.
The project at the ARM Lab looks like a game, but it is really a driving simulator that allows patients not only to maneuver a simulated car, but to "drive" a "virtual robot" in a virtual environment. It will be designed to help those with limited use of their upper bodies (such as stroke or injury victims). During a session, a haptic interface will measure the extent of their strength and grasping ability and apply appropriate response forces. This particular haptic/therapeutic robot will be designed to work tirelessly, providing in-home therapy for patients who might not be able to manage transportation to a traditional facility.
Meanwhile, at Northwestern, the robot is not virtual; it's a metal-and-wire arm with a knob called a "cobot." Actually, the team at Northwestern has several kinds of fully programmable mechanisms called cobots. But with this particular design, the user suffering from loss of upper body strength or mobility will be able to grasp the knob and press against the force of mechanical impedance. The device will accommodate a human being's full range of arm movement.