Robotics - making our lives easier

Engineering is made up of hundreds of specialised areas, including one that focuses on robotics making our lives easier. With a new age dawning, robots are coming into our lives more than ever before.

Maja and robot US-based iRobot [new window] is a company that has developed a range of cleaning robots that will vacuum, clean your wooden floors, even free the guttering of leaves and clean the pool. It's simply about making life easier for us. One of its engineers; programme manager for Home Robotics, Bryan Adams, worked on the development of the recently launched iRobot ConnectR, a product focusing on a new offering: communication.

Remotely controlled robots

Similar to the vacuum cleaner model - the Roomba - in looks, you can access ConnectR via the Internet and drive the robot around your home to see, hear and interact with whomever and whatever you want.

"The way we go about deciding what to do next is by listening to what our customers are looking for," he explains. "There's obviously a ton of excitement about what robots can and should be used for in the future. We also take some inspiration from the academic world where there's a huge robotics community and people who are doing lots of interesting work."

What Bryan loves the most about the engineering sector is the people he gets to work with.

"One of the things about robotics that's different from a Web 2.0 company or other industries, is just that ‘robotics' generates a ton of enthusiasm among people of all ages," he explains. "I love being around people who are super enthusiastic about their work."

It's also that he feels this sector is making a difference to people's lives, and not just by liberating you from housework.

Robotics - medical implications for recovery and treatment

"One place that robots are already starting to have a big impact and will continue to do so, is in the healthcare space," he says.

Adams cites Maja Mataric as a role model. Having a PhD in computer science and artificial intelligence from MIT, she now works as a professor of computer science and neuroscience and co-director of the Robotics Research Lab at the University of Southern California [new window]. In her interactions lab, she is undertaking research aimed to endow robots with the ability to help people, especially those with special needs, such as Alzheimer's, stroke victims and children with autism.

"Our goal is to develop what we call assistive robot human interaction. So we want the robots to help people, but not through physical interaction. It doesn't go and fetch things for them, hold them up, doesn't carry them around. Instead it provides motivation, monitoring, encouragement and coaching," she says.

What kind of motivation, encouragement, monitoring etc depends on the context. Stroke victims, for example, need many hours of supervised exercise a day, but it is usually impossible to get that much human support. Mataric's robots learn and match the patient's personality, and motivate them in the best possible way to make sure they do their daily exercise, in turn improving their recovery.

For autistic children a robot simply interacts with the child socially, helping to improve their skills in this area.

Interacting with autistic children

"There's something about the machine that puts the child at ease and makes them capable of doing what they don't otherwise do. I'm not saying they appear entirely normally developed, but for example there are children that have never shown a social smile, and they'll show that to the robot," Mataric explains.

"What we're trying to do is use the robot as a coach, and use it as a mediator: you have the robot, a child and then another child with whom they would not behave in a social way without the robot. We're using the robot to basically train up social behaviours, so that eventually you can remove the robot, and the child can be closer to being reintegrated in a social setting."

Even Mataric herself says she's surprised that she became an engineer, she believes many people just aren't aware how vast the engineering world is.

"There's so much going on in engineering that I think people really don't realise what you could be doing as an engineer. I'd never thought I'd be an engineer," she says.

"The whole notion of working directly with people and understanding society's needs is an incredibly powerful thing. I think people don't really realise it, because there's this stigma that an engineer is someone who is a nerd who sits in a cubicle. It's about working with people and solving interesting problems. I wish more people would understand that that's what it is, because it's really one of the most fun things you could possibly do."

*Image kindly provided by Phil Channing.