Our robot overlords don't necessarily have to be evil; they can also help disabled humans perform tasks that they can't do themselves. Researchers at robot startup Willow Garage and the Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech are taking robotic assistance to the next level with Robots For Humanity, a project that aims to help Henry Evans, a mute quadriplegic, use a robot to perform daily tasks.
After suffering a stroke at age 40, Evans lost most of his physical abilities. But after therapy, he regained the use of one finger and the ability to move his head—two key factors that allow him to operate a computer (and instruct a robot). Now Willow Garage is investigating how its PR2 robot—a human-sized, two-armed robot on wheels—can help Evans do everything from scratching an itch to shaving his face.
This is just the beginning of the Robots For Humanity effort. "Though the number of people in Henry's particular situation is relatively small, the population of people who might benefit from robotic assistance is very large. Our research could potentially benefit people with less severe impairments, including older adults and people with short-term injuries," explains Charlie Kemp, a professor at Georgia Tech.
Willow Garage hopes to have Evans controlling the PR2 bot in his home by next year. Evans already virtually "visits" the Georgia Tech team in Atlanta on a frequent basis. And Georgia Tech researchers are working on a separate project with PR2 to investigate how robots can help elderly adults remain in independent environments (hint: the robots perform physical tasks for them).
We've already seen how robots can change the way we telecommute. But ultimately, assistive projects like this may be a more practical use for full-sized robots. "Although this is a small market, we think it's an incredibly compelling use of a general-purpose robot," says Steve Cousens, CEO of Willow Garage. "Robotic technologies that augment people's abilities will definitely become more common over time."