In 2003, BusinessWeek interviewed Joseph Engelberger, the robotics pioneer who helped invent the first industrial robot. The article was entitled “How Robots Lost Their Way.” Included in the story was a plea for money to build an eldercare robot that Engelberger thought could be built with then-current technologies, rented for $600 per month, operated at a cost of $1.25 per hour (compared to healthcare homeworkers who cost around $15 per hour) and developed at a cost of less than $700,000.
“The robot I’m working on will be two-armed, mobile, sensate, and articulate. It doesn’t need to communicate a great deal to meet the needs of an 85-year-old. A human can ask: ‘What’s for lunch?’ and the robot can respond with what it’s able to make, or it can say: ‘We’re going to Johnny’s,’ or ‘We just had lunch.’ The voice recognition, behavioral systems, and artificial intelligence necessary to do this are ready. Most of the other technologies are, too. We don’t need more navigation development—getting around an apartment is easier than moving through a hospital or on Mars, which robots do now. I could prove this functionality with the right partner for about $700,000 in 14 months or less.”
It was an interesting proposition in 2003, and now, nearly a decade later, it’s only become more interesting, as the need for eldercare technology rapidly increases. I wondered what would Engelberger say about his proposal today, so I tracked him down and phoned him.
Photos courtesy of and copyright PhotoPin, http://photopin.com/elder care, elder living, health care, home workers