With the Star Wars series enjoying a pop culture revival, new generations are being introduced to the bonds of friendship between human and droid. Whether it’s Luke and R2-D2, Rey and BB-8, or another legendary human and machine pairing, the films depict an environment in which people and robots coexist—with the latter playing a critical role in the former’s success and survival.
This is a scenario that Toyota hopes to replicate offscreen. The auto manufacturer has set its sights on the robotics market, envisioning a future in which a “robot friend” is in every home.
The aging population is a key demographic Toyota hopes to serve, projecting that robots could assist seniors living alone with various tasks, request medical assistance in an emergency, and possibly even administer aid themselves.
It’s a great concept, but how likely are we to see it come to fruition in the near future?
In a recent Bloomberg article on Toyota’s plans, reporter Kevin Buckland wrote, “Machines have become much smarter in the last decade or so. Yet, every attempt to build one that can do simple things like load a washing machine or carry groceries encounters the same basic, physical problem: the stronger a robot gets, the heavier and more dangerous it becomes.”
This problem is particularly concerning for the elderly population. Buckland’s article refers to a 2011 Toyota project that tested a machine for lifting patients in and out of bed. The device worked well on healthy volunteers. But when the engineers realized that frail or injured patients would need a gentler touch, the project was shelved.
For these and other reasons, perhaps we’re still a way off from seeing a C-3PO equivalent as a home health aide. But on a smaller scale, current robotics innovations have great potential. Buckland describes another Toyota project, the Human Support Robot, or HSR, which can learn where books and other personal items belong. It could be used by hospitals and nursing homes to help clean and deliver meals, and industry speculation puts market availability for the HSR at only two or three years.
Designing robots for the home is like working with building blocks—a strong foundation must first be established and any issues addressed before the next layer can be laid. As these lessons are learned, it’s also interesting to think about the resulting data that will be generated and how this can inform future innovations, both robotics and otherwise.
In the case of the HSR, for example, analyzing which tasks a particular subset of patients needs help with most could aid occupational therapists and other caretakers in providing better, more tailored care. It’s important that Toyota and other companies in the robotics space work closely with the data analytics industry to ensure their machines operate at the highest possible level of intelligence.