Toyota Motor Corporation, the world’s largest automobile manufacturer, recently unveiled a few of its robotics projects aimed at the healthcare and elder care industries. Toyota is applying technology from the auto industry — such as sensors, motors, and computer software — in gadgets to be employed in high-tech healthcare. Conversely, what the company learns about mobility issues in people will impact future car designs as well.
One creation was an “intelligent” machine with padded arms that can aid healthcare workers lift patients, as well as help carry the patients. Another device resembled a skateboard and was designed to help people relearn balance. Eiichi Saitoh, a professor in rehabilitation medicine, demonstrated yet another contraption: a computerized brace that helped move his right leg, which has been paralyzed by polio.
Yuri Kageyama, a business reporter for the Associated Press, writes,
Saitoh said he had tried Toyota’s machines with patients and was confident they helped people recover more quickly from strokes and other ailments that curtailed movement.
‘It may be difficult to predict the future, but the era of an aging society is definitely coming,’ he said. ‘We need partner robots to enrich our lives.’
Toyota has set a target date of 2013 for selling commercial products based on these robots. The commercially available robots would assist the infirmed and elderly to walking and balance issues. The company’s general manager, Akifumi Tamaoki, says that more tests are needed first to ensure safety. “We define gentle and smart machines as partner robots,” he said.
One standout in the land of “gentle and smart” machines is Paro, from a company called Paro Robots U.S. Inc. in Illinois. It’s a robot designed to provide comfort and companionship to the elderly, as well as provide stimulation for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or other cognitive disorders.
Karen Ravn, a special contributor to the Los Angeles Times writes,
It’s cute and cuddly, with soft white fur, big bright eyes and — awww! — a pacifier to suck on. Casual observers could easily mistake it for a typical stuffed animal toy.
Paro is designated as a Class II medical device by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is considered to be a part of the “social” category of robots because it’s designed to interact with people. It’s programmed to behave like a real animal, right down to learning its own name after you have given it one. It even responds to discipline by avoiding behaviors that seem to have prompted punishment by its owner.
Despite detractors, evidence so far suggests that even a mechanical companion can provide consolation. The growing presence of robotics in various facets of healthcare raises ethical issues for the industry, however. Yet as Dr. Tia Powell, director of the Montefiore-Einstein Center for Bioethics, says, “Every human tool can be used wisely or poorly.” It’s just an issue of how that technology is applied.