Since the global population is aging, any possibility to close the imminent care gap deserves some consideration. The interdisciplinary research project Ambient Assisted Living is experimenting with domestic assistance robots. Even today, this field is more advanced than many may think. The first robots, albeit with a very focused application spectrum, have made it into the catalogs of hardware stores: Robotic lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners, as well as mopping robots, have become off-the-shelf mass products.
However, what about more complex robotic assistants? As of yet, the functional capabilities of current prototypes are not quite ready for commercial applications. Their robustness for example is not up to user expectations. However, the potential benefits - and risks - of the coming generation of service robots are being discussed in an ever wider public. Key questions are: What is possible? What is legitimate? What is desirable? Often the argument is made that technology cannot and must not be used as a substitute for interpersonal contact. However, if it cannot be guaranteed in the future that elderly or single persons with a mild or moderate need for assistance are physically attended to, would it not be ethically permissible to provide technical assistance solutions for prevention and to support an otherwise largely autonomous lifestyle?
There is of course a broad spectrum of complex and interdisciplinary, non-trivial, non-technical questions to be discussed. This is why current research project increasingly embed the consideration of ethical, legal and social impacts (ELSI), as well as attempts to estimate the consequences of technology use.
Respond in a friendly way
Besides research into the purely technical aspects, initial social studies have been conducted to collect information about the real-life needs of (senior) users. As part of the ALIAS research project, respondents were asked which functions and capabilities a domestic assistance robot should have. The results show: User expectations are quite pragmatic. Respondents asked for physical assistance in the household, for walking, and for shopping. Robotic assistants should also be communications portals, read letters, function as calendars with a reminder function, as well as an interface to control lighting, blinds, and household appliances. Another key aspect is telemedicine: Robots record biometric signals with their integrated sensors and transmit them to a physician, who can discuss the results with the patient online. Also on the wishlist is an expanded emergency call device to improve the safety of senior individuals who live alone. Regarding the operation, respondents expect a robotic assistant to behave similar to a faithful butler, i.e. mostly reactive. It should be unobtrusive and respond to speech an gestures in a friendly way. Respondents clearly rejected complex, unpredictable or even authoritative communication behavior.
The expectations of the users are therefore quite clear. It remains to be seen how the requirements for robustness and artificial intelligence will be compatible with social demands. Maybe these future robotic assistants will be as well accepted as the already popular cleaning aids.
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Frank Wallhoff
is the head of the Institut für technische Assistenzsysteme at the Jade Hochschule in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, as well as of the Transferzentrum für anwenderorientierte Assistenzsysteme at the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology. He is also the coordinator of the international Alias project, which is developing robots to support the elderly.