Hospitals and nursing homes in Finland and Denmark have been testing the therapeutic benefits of Cyberdyne’s Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) exoskeleton and AIST’s robot seal Paro for a couple of years. Now they’re introducing two robots developed by the Korean Institute of Science and Technology’s Center for Intelligent Robotics (CIR). At the beginning of November we brought you the first look at CIR’s MERO, which we surmised might be an English tutor bot. It turns out that these expressive heads are intended to entertain patients at the Kustaankartano Elderly Centre in Helsinki, where they performed a scripted set of facial expressions to the tune of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Meanwhile, CIR’s egg-shaped EngKey robot spins around and flaps its wing-like arms in an attempt to motivate patients to exercise.
People are always quick to voice their concern that robots may one day replace human nurses, but from the looks of things we won’t have to worry about that any time soon. While Cyberdyne’s exoskeleton can enhance physical therapy, and the robot seal pup Paro seems to put patients at ease, I’m less enthusiastic about these latest robots from South Korea. The robotic heads (particularly when dressed up in wigs) are too freaky to be considered “friendly” or “cute”, and their entertainment value is dubious at best. It’s hard to imagine someone willing to turn off their favorite television show to watch these things. And because EngKey moves on wheels instead of legs, it can’t properly lead a morning exercise routine. If you’re going to employ a robot for the job, the clown-like robot Taizo is a much better fit as it can stand up and sit down, as well as perform leg lifts and arm motions.
So far the most promising robots developed for the healthcare industry don’t even attempt to pull at a patient’s heartstrings. They’re more like machines that can help bathe, lift, or move patients more easily. The recently announced Toyota robots, as well as those being developed by Panasonic, are good examples of practical robots with obvious benefits to both patients and nurses.