Robots to Replace Service Dogs?

October 23, 2008 at 11:01 pm 4 comments

The latest on technology from MIT Technology Review:

Service dogs that open doors, switch on lights, and perform other useful tasks offer a much needed lifeline to people with disabilities. Now researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are developing robots that mimic the relationship between humans and their canine helpers.

Robotics researchers have long sought to create robots that can help out around the home. But while robots are good at carrying out preprogrammed tasks and following a clear trajectory, navigating a complex home environment and interacting with real people remains a formidable challenge.

Relationship is the key word here. I’ve met several people who had service or assistance dogs and helped training a few of them. Service dogs don’t just help their partners complete the tasks of day-to-day life, they’re also often vitally important companions and links to society.  An incredible bond develops between an assistance dog and it’s partner.

But I know there are some folks out there that, for various reasons, would prefer not to have a canine partner. If they don’t like monkeys or miniature horses either, I suppose a robot would be a good option. And – in fact – a capuchin monkey provided the inspiration for the Georgia Tech project called El-E.

The latest version of El-E has been upgraded so that, in addition to responding to a laser pointer, it understands voice commands and can perform a wider range of tasks. The robot can be commanded the same way as a service dog–to grab hold of a towel attached to a door, drawer, or cupboard when given the right vocal command. As with service dogs, towels help the robot with both perception and physical interaction. “[El-E] doesn’t know anything about the specific drawer or doors: it’s able to generalize with these commands,” says Kemp. “A towel is actually easy to grasp because you can be at many locations on it and still get a good grip.”

Here’s another important difference between a service dog and a robot.  After he’s lived with you for a while, the dog does know more than a little about which drawer is which and what’s in that drawer.  Along with a wonderfully sensitive nose, he’s got eyes, ears — and a brain, that help him in his work. With time, the dog can use those tools to do many tasks when they’re needed without needing to be told exactly when and how to do them. And, especially in the case of seeing-eye dogs, being capable of intelligent disobedience is an important safety factor. Dogs can learn to use Intelligent disobedience (which means that the dog learns not only when to obey his master’s commands, but also how to figure out when to disobey commands that might put them in danger), and I’m not sure that robot technology has come that far yet.

The article notes that along with being a viable option for people who have allergies – or who just don’t like dogs, EI-E may also be a more cost-effective solution than service dogs:

Kemp notes that a robotic service assistant would not require the same training and care as a service dog, potentially offering help to many more people. “A lot of people who would like a service dog are unable to have one because they are costly and there’s a long waiting list,” he says.

Hmmmm.  Maybe.  But won’t the robot require energy to operate?  What happens if you need it during that inevitable recharge cycle? You can roust a dog out a nap – or even out of his food bowl if you need him to fetch the phone to you after you’ve broken your hip, but a robot with a dead battery is just, well… dead.  And – I suspect that manufacturing processes have a way to go before a high-tech machine capable of following dozens of verbal commands in a range of environments and circumstances becomes more cost-effective than training a dog.

Either way – if and when the time comes when I need help to get through the day – I’ll choose to find it in my four-legged companions.  The bond one develops with a dog that works with you, a dog that knows he holds a vital place in your life, is a wonderful thing – and it’s one I’m quite sure I could not share with a robot.

Besides – I suck at computer programming but I can train a dog to do new tasks as I need them.

Audie: Getting the phone, sweeping the garage (with Zip’s help), cleaning (not drinking from!) the toilet and pulling clothes out of the dryer.  I *heart* my dog.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. PwD-SD-Awareness  |  October 24, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    I totally agree if I have a choice I will stick with my own service dog in which I trained from puppy stage to suit my needs. But most importantly when I feel down and out my dog senses such and comforts me. A robot to me would be an inanimate object that doesn’t comprehend how to feel. Which would also mean that would one even feel like getting out of bed for a robot.

    Of course I am sure that having an option to be able to choose is a good thing. But my worries would be for those that may have a fear of animals or allergic (life threaten), wouldn’t be able to afford it. So what good is technology if it doesn’t get to those that needs it?

    Love to learn what the bottom line is in cost and whom would flip the bill for it! This is just like text to speech programmes. They cost from $800 and up and the majourity cannot afford such.

  • 2. Dog Lover  |  October 24, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    Yes, dogs have a way of sensing how people feel and can give comfort that no machine could.

  • 3. PwD-SD-Awareness  |  October 25, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    I was also thinking what happens when the robot gets caught in the rain, or snow. Go into a puddle! What happens the the circuits and the costs for repairs.

  • 4. Melissa  |  September 12, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    My son has an autism assistance dog to mitigate some of the challenges he faces. We are the primary handlers of the dog, but the care and benefits of Rexie’s doggieness are incredibly valuable! There is no robot on earth that could replace the calming influence of our big, fluffy, white, drooley, marshmallow of a service dog for our son.

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