Grandmother's Little Helper

By Fenella SaundersJul 1, 2001 5:00 AM


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Many elderly people don't get enough care at home because family members cannot keep up with their needs. "One patient had to be reminded to drink every 10 minutes. This repetition is a big contributor to caretaker burnout," says Sebastian Thrun, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University. A humanoid machine named Pearl could help. In response to spoken requests, she can give the weather forecast or the current TV schedule, both aloud and in print on her display screen. Using laser scanners, she tracks objects and people and moves to avoid them. Her head, engineered by Greg Baltus of Standard Robot Company in Pittsburgh and freelance designer Jason Bannister, incorporates a second display that resembles a mouth, allowing her to simulate emotion.

Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon/University of Pittsburgh.

During tests at a nursing home near Pittsburgh, Pearl distributed food and received a warm reception from the residents. Thrun and his colleagues have since upgraded the robot to issue reminders about tasks such as performing physical therapy. Future Pearls might go from room to room to make sure people have awoken in the morning and monitor changes in people's movements that might indicate declining health. Ultimately, Thrun hopes such robots will be affordable enough to use in the home. "With the right care at the right time, a huge number of people could stay independent much longer, with a higher quality of life," he says.

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