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Robotics: Empowering people

We live in a world where another passing day means another sublime invention is created and one more innovator is bound to have his eureka moment.

The possibilities for innovation are endless and in one aspect of technological development are robots and artificial intelligence (AI)--which is seen to play a huge role in the future of humanity. 

In truth, each unique invention in robotics is one step towards realizing all those Star Trek-level tech we only see in movies and in TV. Yep, not long before Scotty beams you up.

But if we just go back to the fundamental aspect of innovation, robots and AI are important in one aspect of assuaging the human condition, healthcare.

In fact, robots are now designed, built and pivotal in aiding children with special needs, which compared to a couple of years before, is a giant leap in rehabilitative pediatrics.

Dr. Ayanna Howard, a professor, researcher and innovator at Georgia Institute of Technology in Georgia, USA has taken this area of study another step forward. Her work focuses on robot home assistance, therapy gaming apps and remote robotic exploration of extreme environments usually used in NASA.

“The robot home assistant can act as something that children with disabilities can work with as another help aside from clinicians,” said Dr. Howard during SM Cares and the US Embassy’s “Robots for Helping the Human World” confab at the SM MAAX Building in Pasay.

“These assistants can also be something the child can play with themselves or other children. The robot assistants have artificial intelligence and are smart but not too smart with the ability to learn with the children. They are programmed to have frustrations but not actual emotions,” Dr. Howard said.

When asked why robotics and healthcare, the approachable American academician said that she was always into joining outreach programs for children and started interacting in her camps with visually-impaired children. 

“After that, I thought how can we create technology that is accessible for all and how can we use these technology for rehabilitation and therapy,” she said.

Apart from the robot assistants, therapy game apps are now rolled out and available for downloading, and are designed to “gamify and to make therapy session into a fun, engaging aspect.”

These therapy apps range widely to suit different kinds of needs and are often tablet-based. 

Dr. Howard said these can be a speech therapy gaming app or reading therapy gaming app and many more to really make the therapy session, well, therapeutic for children in a way that they don’t even realize they’re in a session already.

So far, Howard revealed that 400,000 therapy-based gamers to date have experienced the free and easy to download apps in any device, but for their robots, the cost speaks for another concern.

“The parts for such robots are often expensive, but the team remains vigilant and we try to lower the cost. Because lowering the cost would make it possible for the parents of children with disabilities to utilize it,” she said. “There is no training required for parents or guardians for having the robot home assistant, the AI adopt and learns to its users based on the ability of the child and the people around them.”

Moreover, Dr. Howard said that institutions and universities have made contact to collaborate with the team to make this possible in the country which earlier in the day, led them to visit Mapua University to check out the robotics’ department of one of the top IT schools in the Philippines.

“The Philippine General Hospital, as well, has shown great interest and would like to work on to do the same thing. Obtaining this tech for hospitals with limited therapy nurses or practitioners can help ease the burden of having too many patients but little hospital staff,” said Howard.

Aside from working with robots and therapy gaming apps, Dr. Howard is also focused on showing the beauty of computing to girls, underrepresented minorities and people with disabilities through programs related to robotics.

With these as her focus, she founded Zyrobotics LLC-- a company that addresses the diverse needs of children ages 3 to 12 years old with differing abilities. Their products focus on the child’s capabilities by promoting the stimulation of social cognitive and motor skills development.

Meanwhile, Dr. Howard and her team, who get funding from the National Science Foundation, and other foundations focused on helping children with disabilities, look to share the product to a wider audience and a niche market.

“Depending on whether we can get a manufacturer, I would say another year and a half for us to really see our robots in homes,” she said, but added that the software and the blueprint are open sources, so anyone that has a 3D printer can replicate the robots.

The robots maybe a plug and play learning machine, which uses artificial intelligence, but the question then is how to address over adaptation?

“One of the things it learns is to adapt to the child, but our system is tied into human parent and the clinician. If by some chance the system adapts incorrectly, there’s a human factor in parents and therapists. We always keep the human in the loop,” Howard explained. “If we do robotics right, robotics will allow people to be empowered.”

Topics: artificial intelligence , Dr. Ayanna Howard , “Robots for Helping the Human World” , National Science Foundation
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