Contemplating a Future with Robots

Robots will eventually become a part of our society. In fact, in many ways they already are. It may not seem like a very auspicious start, but products from iRobot like the Roomba are already making their way into many homes. The Roomba will clean your floors for you without ever complaining. It started with a vacuum system, but now I notice you can get a Roomba for mopping too. The point is that robots will very likely continue to enter homes to perform less skilled work.

Then again, there is a pressing need for certain kinds of skilled help. Japan is hoping that Softbank’s Pepper will help address a continuing problem of finding someone to help the elderly. In fact, finding people to act as caregivers to the elderly is going to become a problem in many areas of the world where the birth rate is decreasing and the average age is increasing.

For me, robots have always been an answer to the pressing needs of those with special needs. I’ve always seen computer technology as a means of leveling the playing field for everyone. A properly configured computer can make it possible for someone to earn a living and live independently, but simply having a computer or a computer with a robotic arm isn’t enough for everyone. Autonomous robots that can call for help when needed will make it possible for people with greater needs to remain independent and well cared for by an entity that will never get frustrated or lose patience with them. When a human caregiver is needed, they can simply take over the robot and help the patient from a remote location until help can arrive.

As with any scientific endeavor, there are those who are impatient to see something more substantial arrive. Some are even asking why robots haven’t become better integrated into society yet. The days of I Robot and The Bicentennial Man are a long way off yet (even with Robin Williams’ brilliant presentation). The fact is that interaction with an environment is far more complex than we ever thought (making it easier to appreciate just how much the human body can do, even when less than perfect). However, robots are making progress in other areas. For example, one robot recently repaired another, which is an exciting advancement.

I think it’s good that adoption of robot technology is going slowly. There are many social and political issues that must be addressed before robots can become part of society. People need to understand that robots aren’t a threat and there need to be laws in place to address the use of robots in society. More importantly, we need the wisdom required to use robot technology efficiently and safely.

There is no doubt that robots will continue to become part of society and that they’ll play a greater role performing menial tasks and in helping people become more independent in their later years. The potential for robots to truly help society is great, but there are equally terrifying outcomes if we simply rush the technology to market without proper safeguards. What is your take on robots? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Controlling the Body

It surprises me when I think about all the injuries that leave a body part perfectly usable, but unreachable. An arm would still work if the brain could contact it, but something prevents that contact. In some cases, the loss of contact is permanent and is reestablished though physical and occupational therapy. However, in other cases, the loss of contact is permanent and another solution for creating that contact must be found. Both scenarios have seen technical improvements as of late.

As an example of the first, where contact is temporarily lost, students have been experimenting with techniques for taking control of someone else’s limbs. When I first read this article I thought about the scary implications that loss of control can present. However, what if the person doesn’t actually have control? A therapist could take control of the limb in order to help a patient regain control or to make it easier to exercise the limb in a natural way so there is less loss of muscle mass. Both uses are important. Using a person’s own muscles to help them move around and become reacquainted with their body after a severe accident makes sense especially when you see some of the convoluted measures that therapists must use now to work with a patient from the outside.

As an example of the second, where contact is permanently lost (or the limb is actually missing), science is starting to figure out how to create new connections. For example, it’s now possible to connect a robotic leg that a patient controls using the same brain waves that a leg would naturally use. The technology is currently in its infancy, but progress is being made. In another five or six years, it might be possible to see people who have permanent loss of contact with a limb or the need to use artificial limbs walking around without any problem at all.

It’s exciting to think of the possibilities. Both technologies will make it a lot easier to help someone with special needs regain full mobility. Ultimately, the incapacitation or loss of a limb will become less life changing. Yes, there will be some amount of time spent in rehabilitation, but the change won’t be permanent. Of course, it’s going to be a long time before even these technologies will help someone do anything too dramatic—basic walking and possibly light jogging will have to be enough. Would you allow someone take control of your limbs in order to help you regain your full capacity? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Help for Quadriplegics One Step Closer

One of the main themes in my writing has been helping people with special needs in every way that I can. I encourage developers to add as many accessibility features as possible into applications. In fact, I wrote Accessibility for Everybody with that specific goal in mind. It shouldn’t surprise you that I keep track of developments in robotics that could potentially help those with special needs. My last post on the topic, The Bionic Person, One Step Closer, discussed the use of new technology to give sight to those without it. I recently read an article on an entirely different plane of the topic, those who can’t move their own bodies much, if at all, quadriplegics.

The article, “Paralyzed Mom Controls Robotic Arm Using Her Thoughts,” tells of a mother who would just love to be able to feed herself a bar of chocolate. A new robotic setup can read the required movements directly from her brain and direct a robotic arm to perform them. I find this amazing! Imagine not being able to do anything for yourself one day and then being able to perform little tasks that we all take for granted the next. Can you imagine what this woman goes through every time her nose itches? The thought has entered my mind more than once.

This technology has been in the works for quite some time. However, engineers are steadily getting closer to making the technology more natural to work with. Before now, people who could master the techniques and had the money could use voice controlled robotic arms. However, these devices are incredibly clumsy and difficult to work with. You can even try one out yourself for the low cost of $55.00 (check out “How to make a voice-controlled robot arm for $55“). This particular device is limited when compared to robotic arms used by those with special needs, but it would be enough to give you the idea.

The most important part of this new technology is that it keeps the user involved. Even when robotic arms of the past achieved their goals, they often left the user feeling out of control or possibly out of the picture entirely. The article, “Quadriplegics Prefer Robot Arms on Manual, not Automatic” explains the issue. These older technologies are advanced enough to get a glass of water, feed the user, and even scratch that itchy nose, but the user needs to be involved. Mind controlled robots can keep the user involved in his/her own life.

We’re living in an incredibly exciting time. It’s a time when it’s becoming possible for everyone to participate in life more fully. People who would have lived diminished lives in the past are now starting to become engaged to activities that everyone else performs. The playing field of life is becoming more level, which helps humanity as a whole. Let me know your thoughts on robotic technologies at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.