To live with a robot


Twenty senior citizens in Örebro, Sweden have been testing to live in an apartment equipped with autonomic robots – these robots make their own decisions and act independent. The robots have helped with picking up medicine; make telephone calls, order groceries and taking laundry to and from the laundry room.

We met and asked one of the senior citizens Mr. Stig Hallgren, about the experience.

“One had to provoke the robots, a bit like being a youth again. The communication was its weakest spot, as the robot had difficulties to recognize my voice. They also had a portable reading device attached, but when you’re getting older, these things are difficult to get to work. One has much dryer fingers when you get older. A few years back it was easier for me to use a portable reading device. It is the difficulties with everything new, that it takes time to find all the problems that might arise. The technology got wrecked sometimes but they have to solve these things, so they are able to reboot themselves. The features are reasonable and I am very much looking forward to have a guide-robot. One to walk arm-in-arm with and who can walk with me outside.”

This makes one wonder about the jobs within home care, will they disappear?

Absolutely not, said a woman from the home health aide. The robots will do the heavy and dull jobs, so we have more quality time with the elderly, things that we today don’t have time for. The care section has already made huge cut backs and therefore we are looking forward to this. And someone who lives at home will have a great advantage with this. The robots can perform different kind of services, collect medicine, laundry etc. But they can’t put bandages on wounds, so I will be able to do that instead.

Professor Alessandro Saffiotti. Photo: Jörgen Fredriksson

We also had a chat with the responsible for the project at Örebro University, Professor Alessandro Saffiotti. Your choice of profession, when did that start?

If I go back a long, long way, to when I was a child reading Mickey Mouse, there was an inventor. So when I asked my mother how I could be one, she told me to get into computer science, and I did. A little further into the future I went to Stanford to study artificial intelligence (AI). To see how you could make machines to do things as an intelligent creature. We can now say that we have machines that actually are able to show intelligence. We are now trying to get these to work in the real physical world, to help us in different ways. So that’s how it started, but it wasn’t the mechanical part that was interesting to me, it was AI. How do you for example get them to chose a cup, how can they understand that this particular cup is good and this one is not so good in this context. At a dinner party one doesn’t want the “every day” cup. So we are trying to build in applications for all of these alternatives. We want these robots to think in a smart manner.

More like the human brain and not like the early robots?

I would probably just talk about intelligence. I don’t know if they ned to be similar to the human brain, but to have them understand. Not only programmed to do certain things but to have them finding new ways to do things.

I asked one of your human test subjects, an older gentleman, and he said it was easier for him to use his portable reading device when he was younger. It gave a better response. Things like this changes when you are getting older.

Yes, that’s true. We have discovered many similar problems along the way that we didn’t even think about. And you will only discover these issues when you are working with real people. Many of my colleagues at other universities are working strictly from a technical point of view. They are testing in laboratories, and we want to include people, human test subjects, so we can see if this is actually possible and useful, or if it’s just a dream... Ha ha!

These robots are made to work inside only, will there be robots made for the outside as well?

They are already here. It’s just not only a robot, but more of a system, with one on the street, one in your home, one who’s transporting things up and down the building. And they are all cooperating with each other. So if I am not able to go to the shops, I can ask the shop’s robot to bring my shopping to my door and at the door, my personal robot will take over and deliver the shopping to me. The robots can also walk with you and help you cross a street and carry heavy bags. Well, anything you can think of. In Robot-Era project, we have two test centres, one here in Sweden and one in Italy. Here in Sweden we work with robots made for the inside, as the outdoor season is very short. In Italy we test robots for the outdoors; they can for example throw away your trash. And they separate at source. We are also looking at the different response in different countries.

Well yes, Italy and Sweden have cultural differences…

Yes, maybe they are accepted or not. So we collect all of the data from the tests to see if there are any major differences. The project will be finished at the end of this year.

Will you be constructing robots to make pasta in Italy?

Off course! Ha,ha. No, no Italian would allow a robot to make his pasta.

These human test subjects, are they all completely sane?

I would say that half of them are. But they are all still independent. They have more physical reductions. And what we would like to know is what kind of help they can have. Someone can’t walk, somebody can’t hear and another one isn’t really clear in the mind. But we don’t have anyone with Alzheimer's disease, maybe they would really benefit from help in their everyday life.

So you have been trying to have a wide spectrum of categories?

We have tried to be as broad as possible. With a number of twenty, it is still a large number when conducting tests, but we would like to do even more tests. And we will do test with several kinds of people.

When these kinds of machines are common, will there be a risk of someone kidnapping your robot?

That is a very good question. Security is a very important issue. If the robot was to be kidnapped, the perpetrator would intrude on your personal integrity. As the robot is living with you, all of the information about you stays in the robots memory. Another safety aspect would be that when the robot is in your home, a hacker would be able to have the robot collecting a knife to murder a person. So it is very important that we take security very seriously. would like to thank everyone for their comments and point of views shared with us.
The future is exciting! A tip to you parents out there let your children read comic book, as you never know what it might lead to...