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Will Rosie the riveter be replaced by Rowzee the robot?

Rosie the Riveter is now an assistance robot, thanks to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers. Back in the 1940s, a factory of Rosies riveting would have been human, but does the future hold a line of Rosie the Riveters made up of robots, especially robots programmed to assist people? The key word is the assistive robot adapts to people and new places, not simply other robots or machines. Will there be a Rosie the Robot? Or more like a team of robots doing just specific tasks?

Will Rosie the riveter be replaced by Rowzee the robot?
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

In the futuristic cartoon series "The Jetsons," a robotic maid named Rosie whizzed around the Jetsons' home doing household chores--cleaning, cooking dinner and washing dishes. Such a vision of robotic housekeeping is likely decades away from becoming reality. But at MIT, researchers are working on a very early version of such intelligent, robotic helpers--a humanoid called Domo who grasp objects and place them on shelves or counters.

A robot like Domo could help elderly or wheelchair-bound people with simple household tasks like putting away dishes.

Other potential applications include agriculture, space travel and assisting workers on an assembly line, says Aaron Edsinger, an MIT postdoctoral associate who has been working on Domo since 2004. Edsinger describes Domo as the "next generation" of earlier robots built at MIT-Kismet, which was designed to interact with humans, and Cog, which could learn to manipulate unknown objects. Domo incorporates elements of both of those robots.

"The real potential of robots in the future is going to be realized when they can do many types of manual tasks," including those that require interaction with humans, Edsinger said, according to an April 11, 2007 news release, "MIT's assistive robot adapts to people, new places."

There are now plenty of robots doing manual work on factory assembly lines, but those machines follow a script and can't learn to adapt to new situations, as Domo can, said Rodney Brooks, director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

"Robots in an automobile factory manipulate objects, but they do the same thing, along the same path, every time," Brooks said, according to the news release. "If robots are ever going to be truly useful, they need to be able to manipulate the objects we manipulate."

Living in the real world

Edsinger's team, overseen by Brooks, decided to focus on making a robot that can function in a real human environment-in someone's kitchen, for example. Robots that are designed to help people in their homes will have to be able to ignore the clutter found in most environments and focus only on certain stimuli, says Edsinger.

"Typically robots are placed in very restricted worlds because then you can control the environment. If you put a robot in someone's home, that approach just doesn't extend to that," he said, according to the news release. "We want the robot to adapt to the world, not the world to adapt to the robot."

Perched on a table in Edsinger's workspace, Domo can "see" everything going on in front of it

As the robot's large blue eyes roam across the room, cameras feed information to 12 computers that analyze the input and decide what to focus on. Why did the scientists give the robot that particular type of eye rather than something different such as violet or orange eyes, which are rarer? Perhaps it's to make the robot look more like a person, less scary, or more like a cuddly baby face that coaxes people to hug the robot as if it were a teddy bear?

Domo's visual system is attuned to unexpected motion, allowing it to focus on important stimuli within human environments. For example, locating human faces is critical for social interaction, and people are often in motion. When Domo spots motion that looks like a face, it locks its gaze onto it.

Edsinger recently demonstrated how Domo can interact with people to help them accomplish useful tasks

Once he captures Domo's gaze, they exchange greetings. "Hey, Domo," Edsinger says, to which Domo responds, "Hey, Domo." "Shelf, Domo," says Edsinger, prompting the robot to find a shelf. Domo looks around until it spots a nearby table that looks promising. The robot reaches out its left hand to touch the shelf, much like a person groping for a light switch in the dark, to make sure the shelf is really there.

Once Domo has located the shelf, it reaches out its right hand towards Edsinger, who places a bag of coffee beans in the open hand. Domo wiggles them a little to get a feel for the object, then transfers the bag from its right hand to its left hand (nearest the shelf). Domo then reaches up and places the bag on the shelf.

Though it seems like a minor movement, wiggling the object is key to the robot's ability to accurately place it on a shelf, Edsinger says. Domo is programmed to learn about the size of an object by focusing on the tip of the object, for example, the cap of a water bottle. When the robot wiggles the tip back and forth, it can figure out how big the bottle is and decide how to transfer it from hand to hand or to place it on a shelf.

"You can hand it an object it's never seen before, and it can find the tip and start to control it," Edsinger said, according to the news release.

The human connection

The philosophy behind the team's approach is that humans and robots can work together to accomplish tasks that neither could do all alone.

"If you can offload some parts of the process and let the robot handle the manual skills, that is a nice synergistic relationship," Edsinger said, according to the news release. "The key is that it has to be more useful or valuable than the effort put into it."

For Domo or any robot to safely interact with humans, the robot has to be able to sense when a human is touching it. Domo has springs in its arms, hands and neck that can sense force and respond to it. If you grab its hand and push, the robot will move the way you want it to.

"By placing that spring in there, you get physical compliance that makes the whole body sort of springy, which makes it safer for human interaction," Edsinger explained in the news release. But if you apply too much force or move Domo's arms in the wrong direction, it voices its displeasure by saying "ouch."

If robots are going to be useful in the home, it's also important for them to have a humanoid form, so people will feel more comfortable around them

Such assistive robots could be very useful in finding solutions to the impending health care crisis caused by the aging of the baby boomers, Edsinger said. Having help with simple tasks, such as getting a glass from a cabinet, could make a big difference for elderly or wheelchair-bound people. Would you prefer a human-looking robot or a robot that looked like a friendly assistive guide dog?

The original work on Domo was funded by NASA, and the project is now supported by Toyota, which is interested in developing partner robots for the home. Another application is in assembly line production. The idea is that intelligent robots could work together with people to make workers more productive and save manufacturing jobs from being sent overseas, says Edsinger.

Assembly line production means the robot would replace people in manufacturing. Would it also replace people like Rosie the Riveter, in the sense, or would it allow people to be retrained and placed in jobs that would better make use of their work, skills, and time?

Although a life of leisure enabled by robots who perform all manual labor is still securely in the realm of science fiction, Brooks says he can foresee a future where robots specialized for different functions help out with household chores.

"I don't think there's going to be one Rosie the robot doing everything in the home," said Brooks, according to the news release. "It's more likely to be a team of robots doing different things."

Robots and parental controls

Robots may need to include parental controls, says a new study. Are parents worried about their kids being "in rapport" or "bonding with a robot?" You may wish to check out the article, "When my robot smiles at me: Enabling human-robot rapport," or the YouTube video, "Furhat the Social Robot (SVT Rapport)." On one hand you have parents encouraging assistance robots to help those of any age with disabilities to improve their quality of life. And on the other hand, you have parents worrying about a child becoming too attached to a robot. Then there's the issue of the assistance robot for older adults.

You have the fear of a young person spending too much time with a robot instead of real people. And then you have to deal with older adults' fears that companion robots will negatively affect young people. This could create design challenges for developers hoping to build robots for older users, according to Penn State researchers. An example might be never to leave a young child or an elderly person alone with an unsupervised robot. Another angle is what type of parental controls would be put on a companion robot for a child compared to an assistance robot to help a child or adult of any age with a disability?

Companion robots provide emotional support for users and interact with them as they, for example, play a game, or watch a movie

Older adults reported in a study that while they were not likely to become physically and emotionally dependent on robots, they worried that young people might become too dependent on them, said T. Franklin Waddell, a doctoral candidate in mass communications. Those surveyed also indicated that although they were not worried about being negatively affected by robots, the adults would still resist using the devices.

"We've seen this type of effect, which is usually referred to as a third-person effect, with different types of media, such as video games and television, but this is the first time we have seen the effect in robotics," said Waddell, according to the April 30, 2014 news release, Robots may need to include parental controls. "According to a third person effect, a person says they are not as negatively affected by the media as other people."

The researchers, who presented their findings April 30, 2014 at the Association for Computing Machinery's Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, said this effect could eventually lead to changes in behavior. For instance, people who believe video games harm young people may tend to avoid the games themselves. Likewise, older adults who believe that companion robots could harm young people may tend to avoid robots.

To compensate for the effect, robot designers may need to consider adding controls that will help adults monitor the use of robots by children, said Waddell, who worked with S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, and Eun Hwa Jung, a doctoral candidate in mass communications.

"Robot designers and developers look at older adults as a central user base for companion robots," said Waddell, according to the news release. "This effect is something they should consider when designing the interface for the robots to make sure, for example, that the robot includes some type of parental controls."

Robots with parental controls may convince adults that they can own and use robots and still protect children from their fears that the devices might lead to laziness and dependency

The researchers studied two types of robots: companion robots and assistant robots, said Sundar. Assistant robots are devices that help with everyday tasks, such as vacuuming the floor or playing a CD, he said, while companion robots are more interactive.

This interactivity may be one reason that users tend to attach human-like emotions to companion robots, Waddell said, according to the news release. "A companion robot provides the user with a source of friendship," said Waddell, according to the news release. "They might watch TV with the participant, provide emotional support, or complete an activity with the user."

Waddell explained, according to the news release, that the participants did not seem to show the same level of apprehensions about assistance robots

Researchers asked 640 retirees over the age of 60 -- 53 percent female and 47 percent male -- about whether robots would have negative effects on themselves and on others. For instance, they asked the subjects whether robots would make them lazier and encourage them to interact less often with other people. They then asked similar questions about the effects of robots on young people.

The Korea Institute for Advancement of Technology supported this study, which is part of an international research and development program between Penn State and the Industrial Academy Cooperation Foundation of Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea. You also may wish to check out the site of the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems. Or see the ACM library for older articles on companion robots, such as, "Robotic companion for diabetic children: emotional and educational support to diabetic children, through an interactive robot," or "A behavior adaptation method for an elderly companion robot." You also may wish to check out, "Avoiding the uncanny valley: robot appearance, personality and consistency of behavior in an attention-seeking home scenario for a robot companion."