Looking more like an armless mecha from the Flesh Fair in Spielberg’s film A.I. Artificial Intelligence than Bruce Willis in Surrogates, InTouch Health’s RP-7i robot is controlled by a remote doctor through a joystick and a secure Internet connection. Thirty one Michigan hospitals make use of doctors at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland hospital, in Pontiac, Mich to treat patients with symptoms of stroke using such bots.
According to Yulun Wang, CEO of InTouch Health, a Santa Barbara, Calif., only 4 percent of stroke patients across the country get treated with the right drugs. The drugs need to be administered within three hours of the first symptoms, which often can’t happen in a remote location. Within the Michigan RP-7i network, Wang says, 85 percent of patients are now treated appropriately and in time with the assistance of bots.
Telepresence is action at a distance, or the projection of presence where you physically are not. This is done a number of ways today, including phoning in to your weekly staff meeting, using a Virtual Public Network (VPN) connection to control your PC remotely, or availing yourself of a service like Second Life to attend meetings and conferences to “rez” an avatar or virtual representation of yourself.
A study by NextGen Research, a market research firm, now projects that in the next five years, telepresence will become a significant feature of the US $1.16 billion personal robotics market –this means bots for you or your home.
Several companies are already mass marketing personal telepresence bots. These include WoWWee Rovio bot – essentially a Wi-Fi–enabled mobile webcam on wheels for $299.00. You can control the VGA color camera, speaker, microphone, antenna, and "head," which can be raised and lowered. Rovio can be controlled from anywhere in the world through its Web-based interface.
The $349.99 Meccano Spykee Robot is more like a helper then a toy. Spykee comes with a WiFi computer connection and also comes equipped with a video camera, loudspeaker, and microphone. Like the Rovio, you can control this bot wirelessly from your PC using a WiFi connection from anywhere in the world. Leave it at home when you go away. If it detects any movement, it can sound an alarm, take a picture of a potential intruder, and send it to you via email. Watch out kitty!
Trevor Blackwell is the founder and CEO of Anybots, a robotics company in Mountain View, Calif., that builds telepresence robots controlled remotely like the ones in Surrogates. Blackwell has been using a Wi-Fi enabled wheeled robot named QA to telecommute to his office so he can enjoy the "sun streaming in" his windows in the morning while his robot sits next to his desk at the office, available for anyone to approach and ask him a question. He can hear and answer through a Bluetooth headset on his end.
Blackwell’s real dream is a teleoperated robotic servant to wash the dishes and check the oil in his car while he’s watching the kids. One prototype, Dexter (5’10" tall, 135 pounds), balances dynamically on two legs, walks, jumps, and will be able to run. Monty (5’7" tall, 160 pounds) – another prototype – has one fully articulated hand (driven by 18 motors) and one gripper, and balances on two wheels.
How far away is a world of mind-controlled personal bots? Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have demonstrated that rhesus monkeys with electrodes implanted in their brains can control a computer cursor. Toyota researchers in Japan have built a brain/machine interface (BMI) that has been demonstrated to control a wheelchair using a person’s thoughts.
"We’re getting there, but it will be quite a while before we have anything that looks like Bruce Willis," says Blackwell. Hopefully, my surrogate bot won’t wear a toupee.