| Kathrin Streckenbach |
Weingarten, Germany (dpa) – If everything goes according to plan, Marvin will soon start his first job as a household assistant. He’ll clear the table, bring glasses of water from the kitchen and turn out the lights at night.
Marvin is a robot. An unprepossessing articulated arm mounted on a wheeled base, he’s currently a prototype in a research project at Ravensburg-Weingarten University’s Institute for Artificial Intelligence in the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. The project is aimed at determining how assistive robots can make everyday life easier for people with physical disabilities.
At the moment the focus is on very fundamental questions, said Wolfgang Ertel, a professor of applied informatics and the project’s spokesman. What sort of help is needed? Can robots provide such help? How should the robots be built?
Some nursing homes already use assistive robots, Ertel noted, “but merely for pick-up and delivery duties – standardised procedures, in other words. A machine doesn’t have to be intelligent for that”.
Marvin, on the other hand, is capable of learning. He lets it be known when he doesn’t understand a command or can’t perform a task. His master or mistress can then demonstrate the action – pouring water into a glass, for example – and the robot will remember it the next time.
The optimal method of communication is also an object of the research, Ertel said. One possibility is a voice interface enabling the robot to respond after being spoken to. Another is use of a computer or tablet.
Also taking part in the project are students from a study group led by Maik Winter, a professor of nursing studies at the university and dean of the Faculty of Social Work, Health and Nursing. The group surveyed people with physical disabilities to learn their needs.
“What they mostly need is a little help in their day-to-day life and with household activities,” Winter said. “Getting a cup, turning out the light, clearing the table – these are strenuous and unpleasant tasks for people with a disability.”
Marvin is to be tested and further developed in the laboratory for another year before trial deployment in the homes of people who, Winter said, should have a certain affinity to technology.
“They shouldn’t be afraid of it,” he remarked, noting that many physical disabled persons were already quite familiar with technology – in the form of a wheelchair, for instance.
The trials will be with patients in the care of The Zieglerschen, a German social welfare organisation.
Could assistive robots like Marvin put large numbers of people out of work, as their industrial counterparts have done?
“I don’t see any danger of that,” said Harald Rau, Chairman of The Zieglerschen. “In Germany we’re facing an immense shortage of nursing personnel. We’ve already got a deficit of some 100,000 caregivers, and that will grow considerably.”
What is more, Rau pointed out, many caregivers say their work leaves them too little time for personal interaction with their patients. A robot that relieves them of a lot of mechanical tasks could be helpful in this regard.
Both Ertel and Winter emphasised, however, that Marvin was still far from being a caregiver and was only meant to help his master or mistress and their relatives with household tasks. The robot might nevertheless be deemed worthy of coverage by Germany’s public health or nursing-care insurance at some point.
The key, Rau said, is “showing that it can help physically disabled persons live independently at home longer” – and thus save the government money.
Should Marvin go into serial production, his purchase price could be about US$6,300. Ertel sees another possible target group for him: “Yuppies with a lot of money and little time for household chores.”