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Brown, Toy Maker Partner on Elder Assistance Robots

Joy for All pup

Joy for All puppy (

2 November 2017. A collaboration between Brown University and toy maker Hasbro is developing robotic assistants for older people that build on Hasbro’s current line of robotic pets. The project, called Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support, or Aries, is funded by a grant of nearly $1 million from National Science Foundation.

The three-year effort combines Brown’s Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative in Providence, Rhode Island with Hasbro, a maker of popular games and toys, including long-time favorites like Monopoly and Play-Doh. In November 2015, the Pawtucket, Rhode Island company introduced its line of robotic pets to provide companionship for older people. The Joy for All companion pets, a kitten and puppy, have soft fur, make soothing sounds, and include sensors that respond to petting and hugging.

The new project aims to expand on the Joy for All Pets to provide help for older individuals with simple tasks. “Hasbro did a great job developing a product that can provide comfort and joy for older people,” says psychologist Bertram Malle in a university statement. “What we want to do now is leverage our expertise in cognitive and computer science to add capabilities to this robotic pet. Neither of us could do this on our own, but together we have the expertise to potentially develop something truly beneficial.” Malle is co-director of the Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative and principal investigator on the project.

The new devices are expected to help older individuals with tasks like finding items like keys or glasses in their homes, remember medications and appointments, keep in contact with friends and family, and help relieve agitation and loneliness. The Brown researchers plan to offer their expertise on behavioral sciences, geriatric psychiatry, computer science, and industrial design to help develop an effective, yet affordable assistance device.

The team plans to start with user studies to identify the tasks with which older people may need help. Finding lost items and reminders to take medications are already well documented, but there may well be other less obvious tasks that the device can also offer help. Computer scientists are expected to write routines with artificial intelligence that can learn the older person’s language and behavior patterns to make the device more responsive to subtle cues. The researchers say the project may reveal new insights into human-robot interaction that advance mutual teaching and learning.

A key objective for the team is to develop an affordable system — the “A” in Aries — that can reach a wide user audience, which is where Hasbro’s experience is expected to be critical. “The current Joy For All pets cost roughly $100 while similar robotic products can cost $5,000 to $6,000,” says Michael Littman, a professor of computer science at Brown and co-principal investigator on the grant. “This is one of the important reasons Hasbro is a great industry partner for this project.”

The new device is also expected to resemble a small animal that helps, but does not replace caregivers. The team plans to develop the system over the project’s three-year span and test the device’s safety, efficacy, and acceptability among healthy adults and those with cognitive impairments.

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