IBM and Rice University Team Up on a Robot to Care for the Elderly

Like so many things in life, the future of eldercare seemingly lies in robotics. On December 8, IBM and Rice University announced that they have collaborated on a prototype robot designed to help the elderly and assist their caregivers.

Named IBM MERA (Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant), the project is a Watson-powered robot that can help read a patient's vital signs, answer questions about their health, and recognize and assist if there is a fall. The prototype was created by IBM alongside Rice University students and faculty from the departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Psychology. The robot currently resides inside IBM's "Aging in Place" research facility in Austin, Texas.

In addition to running on IBM systems—such as the Cloud and Watson technologies—MERA also implements CameraVitals, a system that can read vital signs by recording a patient's face. This technology was developed by Rice's Ashutosh Sabharwal and Ashok Veeraraghavan.

The combination of IBM Watson's speech functions and CameraVitals can potentially help get information to caregivers quickly and at all times of the day, especially in an emergency situation. Watson's speech and text capabilities also come into play if a patient has any health questions for the MERA, such as “What are the symptoms of anxiety?” or “What is my heart rate?,” according to the university. The idea is that the MERA will implement these systems to help the elderly live independently, while still being provided with the basic care they need.

“Now is the time to invest in, care for, protect, and empower our aging population so they can live more independent lives,” Arvind Krishna, IBM Research's senior vice president, said. “Our new research on ‘embodied cognition,’ which combines real-time data generated by sensors with cognitive computing, will explore how to provide clinicians and caregivers with insights that could help them make better care decisions for their patients.”

Both IBM and the university stress that the number of people aged 65 and up in the United States will continue to grow in the coming decades, with estimates pointing at 92 million by 2060, making advancements in eldercare vital as the overall population ages.

[h/t Healthcare IT News

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Popcorn Might Be the Cheap, Biodegradable Robot Power Source of the Future
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If you've ever put a flat bag of kernels into the microwave and pulled out a full bag of fluffy popcorn two minutes later, you've witnessed a fascinating bit of food chemistry at work. Now, IEEE Spectrum reports that scientists are looking into applying the unique properties of popcorn to robotics.

For their study, presented at this year's IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, Cornell scientists stuffed the movable parts of a robot (a.k.a. the actuators) with unpopped kernels of corn. Usually actuators are powered by air, hydraulics, or electric currents, but as the researchers found, popcorn works as a cheap single-use alternative.

When heat is applied to popcorn kernels, the water trapped inside them turns to steam, creating enough pressure to peel back the tough exterior and release the starchy endosperm. A sudden drop in pressure causes the endosperm to quickly expand, while the cool outside air solidifies it.

The results can be dramatic: When popping extra small white kernels, the cheapest popcorn tested, researchers saw them expand to 15.7 times their original size. Inside a soft robot, this amounts to building interior pressure that moves the actuator one way or another.

A similar effect can be achieved using air, and unlike popcorn, air can be pumped more than once. But popcorn does offer some big advantages: Using popcorn and heat is cheaper than building air pumps, plus popcorn is biodegradable. For that reason, the researchers present it as an option for robots that are designed to be used once and decompose in the environments they're left in.

You can get an idea of how a popcorn-powered robot works in the video below.

[h/t IEEE Spectrum]

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Disney Parks May Soon Have Robotic Stunt People
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Animatronics are a staple of any Disney park, but as the company introduces more characters into the fold—like heroes from Star Wars, Marvel, and Avatar—the bar is being raised on audience expectations. On the screen, these characters defy gravity and pull off death-defying stunts, yet at the Disney parks, they’re still relying on fairly static animatronic models for their live shows and attractions. As Tech Crunch details, though, the gap between what the heroes do on film and in the park may be closing.

This development is all thanks to Disney’s R&D department, where Imagineers are working on next generation animatronics that can pull off aerial stunts like you’d see in any of the studio’s blockbuster films. The project is called Stuntronics, and its goal is to create animatronic stunt "heroes" that can replace a more static model in the middle of a Disney park show when the scene requires some high-energy action to take place. It's similar to the flesh and blood or CGI stunt people that movies have been using for decades.

In a video demonstrating their progress, a robot model is shown leaping from a cable to do backflips, double backflips, and other heroic landings. It’s something straight out of a Spider-Man movie and is years ahead of any animatronic character currently at the park.

Tony Dohi, principal R&D Imagineer at Disney, told Tech Crunch that the idea for this type of animatronic came about because they realized there was a “disconnect” between the exhibits at the park and what people see on film, so swapping in advanced animatronics for complex action scenes would go a long way toward making Disney’s parks feel more authentic to their properties. The Na’vi Shaman from the Avatar exhibit shows that Disney can get their animatronics to emote; this next step will put them into action.

According to Tech Crunch, right now the stunt robots are realized with the help of an “on-board accelerometer and gyroscope arrays supported by laser range finding.” They are autonomous and self-correct their aerial stunts to hit their marks. Though the model used in the video is just a generic mockup, it’s not hard to see how the Imagineers at Disney can easily turn it into any number of heroes from Marvel or Star Wars.

Stuntronics is just one of the advancements happening with robotics at Disney. Tech Crunch also detailed the Vyloo, which are a trio of autonomous bird-like robots in the park that react to guest movements. They can be seen in the Collector's Fortress in the Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! attraction at Disneyland in California.

The Stuntronics project is still in the R&D phase with no practical application in place just yet. But if this technology does progress the way the Imagineers are hoping, the blockbuster action of Star Wars, Marvel, and The Incredibles won’t just be exclusive to the movies anymore.

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