This polite, drink-fetching robot may one day be a grandparent’s best friend

We’re inching closer and closer to the day when robots became a daily part of our home lives. Researchers at UC Berkeley’s Computer Science Division have programmed a robot to fold laundry. It’s still very much in the early development phases, however. And while busy people might see a robot butler as a convenience, for some elderly, these companion bots are much more than that.

Acceptable Robotics Companions for Ageing Years, or Accompany, is made up of British and European researchers who want to give seniors more autonomy. Led by Dr. Farshid Amirabdollahian of the University of Hertfordshire, the team created Care-O-bot 3, a friendly yet useful automaton. As part of a three-year study, the researchers introduced the machine into people’s homes.

“Our aim is to use the robot to increase independence and quality of life,” Dr. Amirabdollahian told the Daily Mail. “The envisaged relationship between the user and the robot is that of co-learner, whereby the robot and user provide mutual assistance and so that the user is not dominated by technology, but feels empowered by it.”

Fundamentally, the Care-O-bot assists its elderly companion. The one-armed machine can carry objects on its tray or grasp items with its “fingers.” Cameras and sensors help detect when the person is home or there’s a problem. It can work in concert with other connected devices, like coffee pots and ovens. The LCD screen also works as tablet, and the user can ask the robot to get a book from the shelf or accompany him or her to the door. However, researchers realized that before seniors could interact with the bot, they had to overcome some weariness.

“We introduced the notion of empathy to remove the coldness. For that, we created a mask, which appears on the LCD screen,” said Dr. Amirabdollahian. “Sometimes the mask is happy and sometimes it is sad, and it will then explain why, for example, because someone has forgotten to take their medication.” It even knows when to keep its distance, as it’s been programmed not to get uncomfortably close to its human.

While the bot is technically available for purchase for £180,000 ($275,000), the team is currently working on turning the prototype into a commercial product. Dr. Amirabdollahian predicts that the Care-O-bot will be in people’s homes within 10 years. However, it will likely be in a different iteration, as the Care-O-bot 4 — a two-armed, much cuter version — is already in development.

It’s pretty remarkable to see people interacting with the bot in the video above, and it does look perfectly friendly. We just can’t help but think about another story of a robot we heard today: The fire department needed to rescue a woman who had her hair sucked up by her robot vacuum as she slept. We’re sure the Care-O-bot would never do that, though.

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