Robots for Grandma and Grandpa

We all know the image: A future full of flying cars, meals in pill form, and robots to cater to our every need. (Until, of course, they take over and rule with a — literal — iron fist.) We may not have flying cars or Willy Wonka-style pills, but the catering robots are here, and they're after Grandma and Grandpa.

Though robotic assistance is nothing new — a variety of such machines having been available for some time — there is a new entry on the scene that is just a little bit different. Charlie is a "HealthBot," a robot specifically designed to help care for residents at Selwyn Retirement Village in Auckland, New Zealand — one custom made to meet their needs.

Charlie came to be as the result of a study at the University of Auckland. Researchers investigated Selwyn residents' thoughts about robots, and how they could be used to provide vital services. Also of interest was the a more psychological matter — how the robots should look to make residents most comfortable with their presence.

The study revealed that Selwyn residents felt most comfortable with an attendant that did not mimic human features, had no preference for male or female, but did have a clear voice — described as "middle-aged." A short, stocky build was most popular, resulting in Charlie's 3.6 foot stature. He boasts a ceiling-based navigation system — Stargazer — along with the expected accessories: speech recognition, sensors to avoid obstacles, cameras, and of course, wireless internet.

Several residents expressed opposition to the robot having a human face. To accommodate this, Charlie has a touch screen instead, standing at 10.4 inches. While his his user interface runs Windows — go with what the seniors might know, we suppose — Carlie is Open Source at heart. His hardware is controlled by a Linux system, which no doubt will prove useful when the machine uprising comes.

As for his pre-uprising usefulness, Charlie offers a number of services, based on residents' responses to the study. Researchers learned — unsurprisingly, we think — that participants preferred that personalized services like giving medical advice, assessing their emotions, and offering personal care, remain human tasks. General tasks were fine for Charlie, however: lifting, cleaning, calling medical providers or for help, and checking vital signs. (Something like a three-foot-tall combination of the supermarket blood pressure machine, a Roomba, and LifeAlert...)

Perhaps if he does well, we'll all soon have a Charlie of our own.

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