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UCI’s Robotics Team Focuses on COVID Work

University of California-Irvine researchers say the pandemic is a good time to evaluate the importance of robots at home, school and in the office, especially as machines get better at anticipating what humans want.

Jeffrey Krichmar, UCI cognitive sciences professor, said robots can help disinfect areas that may be contaminated with the coronavirus, while others can clean homes, tend to the elderly in nursing homes and even conduct laboratory experiments for remote learners.

Krichmar, whose team is developing more sophisticated robots, acknowledges it is like science fiction, and the goal is to get socially assistive robots to “think and act like humans.”

“Then they’ll be more natural and they’ll be more acceptable to people,” Krichmar told the Business Journal on Aug. 6. “They’re not toys. They’re serious robots with serious actuators and sensors and abilities to do lots of different things.”

Robotics Laboratory

Krichmar is also director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and Engineering in the UCI School of Social Sciences, which is home to the Cognitive Anteater Robotics Laboratory.

For use during the COVID-19 pandemic, he gives the example of a robot that can put away groceries and take out the trash.

“That would be useful for someone who’s impaired, can’t get around, needs help, and people can’t come to their home,” he said.

Krichmar and his colleagues are designing cutting-edge robotic systems that mimic the human brain, using the “Toyota Human Support Robot” for basic tasks such as serving meals, as well as functions requiring higher-level cognition skills.

“The robot adapted and learned to the person’s needs,” Krichmar said. ‘“It would actually guess what the person wanted and bring, you know, an apple. The person would say ‘I’m not hungry’ so it would bring a book. ‘Oh, thanks, I want to read.’”

He added that the robot “adjusted and became much more efficient at getting the right thing to help the person.”

The ultra-clever machine also knows that a banana doesn’t belong on the floor, and makes sure the fruit is on a table.

Krichmar said using a robot in a classroom is a “step up” from Zoom or Skype.

“I hope COVID-19 will be a wake-up call to our robotics community to spur new ideas,” Krichmar said. He estimates the research robot could cost between $50,000 and $100,000, while some less-sophisticated commercially available robots go for as little as $2,000 and up.

Long Way to Go

The robots communicate through wireless internet connectivity and can function either autonomously or via remote control. The robots can also be used in disaster relief operations, according to UCI. 

Plenty of work still needs to be done.

Krichmar said that getting robots to maneuver on stairs and difficult terrain remains a challenge, in addition to reaching and grabbing things.

“Manipulation is very difficult,” he said. “We have a long way to go.”

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Kevin Costelloe
Kevin Costelloe
Tech reporter at Orange County Business Journal

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