Right now, most of us take many everyday tasks for granted. Daily activities like brushing your teeth or making yourself breakfast seem simple, but they may be nearly impossible for people with physical impairments, including our growing elderly population. Goldie Nejat, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto, is building healthcare robots to assist with these activities, allowing the elderly to live at home with greater independence, or giving a helping hand at long term care facilities.
Nejat is designing robots that can perform several tasks, and that can also interact with people, picking up on verbal instructions and even cues on the user’s emotions and intent. Pushing the envelope on autonomy and artificial intelligence, these robots must be aware of their environment and be able to react and adapt to new situations.
Nejat takes inspiration from the human brain, making decisions based on the latest research in psychology or human social behaviour sciences. In a way, programming robots helps us better understand people and problem solving.
Her interdisciplinary approach to robot design also includes collaborators in healthcare, occupational therapy, nursing, and even residents in long term care facilities. This valuable feedback allows her to tailor her designs to the wish lists of actual users.
Beyond assisting with daily activities, Nejat is also building robots that can help with emergency response. She explains that search and rescue robots can be useful after a natural disaster, such as an earthquake where “you have collapsed buildings, and you may have people trapped in those buildings. It may be dangerous for the rescue workers to just go into those buildings initially, because we don’t know what’s in there. So we can send robots, and the robots can search the area, map it out. If they find victims, they tag them on a map and say this is where they are, and provide that information to rescue workers so then they can go in and focus where their search will be, and they may know that there are no eminent dangers such as fires or gas leaks.”
Want to learn more about responsive robotics? Read about robots that respond to physical gestures in the blog.