A robot at home could be the key to empowering people with disabilities. New technology is making it possible for a robot to be simple to use and give the disabled and their caregivers the independence they each seek. In the November 2023 issue of IEEE Spectrum, the story, called “This Robot Could Be the Key to Empowering People With Disabilities”, describes how Henry Evans and his wife have proven the title to be true.
At the age of 40, Henry was working as a CFO in Silicon Valley when he suffered a stroke-like attack caused by a birth defect. Try to imagine how a person could overnight lose the ability to talk and become quadriplegia. The IEEE Spectrum quoted Henry as writing in his blog, “One day I was a 6’4”, 200 Lb. executive. I had always been fiercely independent, probably to a fault. With one stroke I became completely dependent for everything…. Every single thing I want done, I have to ask someone else to do, and depend on them to do it.” After years of just lying in bed, Henry dreamed of using a robot to assist him in manipulating his physical environment.
Henry is able to communicate by moving his eyes, head, and neck, and slightly moving his left thumb. He controls an Apple computer cursor using head movements and an onscreen keyboard. This enables him to type at about 15 words per minute. This capability was part of a collaboration with his wife, Jane, and roboticists on a project called Robots for Humanity at Georgia Tech. The goal of the robotic project was not just finding ways to extend Henry’s independence. It was just as important to enable Jane to live better and have a more fulfilling life. Jane was quoted in the article, “Robots are something that was always science fiction for me. When I first began this journey with Henry, it never entered my mind that I’d have a robot in my house. But I told Henry, I’m ready to take this adventure with you. Everybody needs a purpose in life. Henry lost that purpose when he became trapped in his body, and to see him embrace a new purpose—that gave my husband his life back.”
The robot Henry and Jane are using is called Stretch. It followed many assistive technology projects developed through Robots for Humanity at Georgia Tech. The robot consists of a mobile base, a thin vertical pole, and a horizontal arm with a gripper. Henry can use the robot to reposition a blanket, something normally requiring a caregiver. Henry uses the robot to help him shave and even scratch itches which he is prone to have. Stretch can go to the kitchen and pick up something on the counter and take it down the hall to Henry’s room. Stretch can do many routine things for Henry which he had not been able to do for ten years. The article includes a picture of Stretch and a number of short videos with the robot in action. You can watch them here.
The first robot Henry and Jane obtained as part of a research project cost $400,000 and weighed 400 pounds. They said if it went awry, it could destroy their house. The current robot, called Stretch, is light and easy to manipulate, and costs $20,000. That is still a lot of money, but I am sure the cost will come down as technology becomes less expensive and production increases. Another consideration is the nationwide cost of a home healthcare aid is $5,000 per month.
I have written a lot about how robots and AI can be important tools for home healthcare. See Robot Attitude: How Robots and Artificial Intelligence Will Make Our Lives Better.