A.I. spotlight: Keepon and Paro

At the risk of understatement, exciting things are happening when it comes to robotics and artificial intelligence and the potential applicability of these fields in the lives of PWDs.

[Description: A small, bright yellow robot with two eyes and a black nose stands in front of a white background. Outlined in orange and bright blue, the robot leans slightly to the left while it sits atop a small black pedestal]  Image courtesy of this page on the CMU website.

The little ‘bot pictured above is Keepon, developed by Hideki Kozima and Marek Michalowski at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Keepon’s purpose is to interact with children with emotional, neurological or sensory processing disorders, and who otherwise may have difficulty interacting with other children, relatives, or caregivers. However, Keepon has become something of an internet sensation in recent years, most notably when a 2007 video of the robot dancing to Spoon’s “I Turn My Camera On” became extremely popular on YouTube, and inspired a Wired Magazine-backed promo video for Spoon featuring Keepon. As this 2008 excerpt (accessibility warning: video is not close-captioned) from Discovery Channel’s show “The Works” demonstrates, there is quite a bit of potential for Keepon’s original purpose; it may be cute (and a great dancer), but the potential for this sort of technology to help children with disabilities is worth further exploration.

A New York Times article from this past July, written by Amy Harmon, discussed another A.I. creature, Paro, which is made to resemble a seal cub. Paro was first developed by Takanori Shibata, a researcher working at Japan’s national science institute AIST.  The NYT article describes Paro thusly:

Paro is a robot modeled after a baby harp seal. It trills and paddles when petted, blinks when the lights go up, opens its eyes at loud noises and yelps when handled roughly or held upside down. Two microprocessors under its artificial white fur adjust its behavior based on information from dozens of hidden sensors that monitor sound, light, temperature and touch. It perks up at the sound of its name, praise and, over time, the words it hears frequently.

The whole article is worth a read, as it covers the success that some senior residential communities in the U.S. have had with using Paro as an assistive device — sort of akin to animal therapy without an actual animal (which might cause problems for, say, residents with allergy issues) — for some residents.  There is also a video at the NYT’s website (unfortunately, sans transcript) that shows Paro in action. The article also discusses at length some of the benefits of this sort of technology, as well as some of its limitations.

Of course, Keepon and Paro are only two examples of the amazing possibilities of artificial intelligence, and it remains to be seen as to whether this technology — which, like many new technologies, currently comes with a rather hefty price tag — can be made more accessible to people or organizations that cannot afford to pay $6,000 U.S. for a Paro. Hopefully, these A.I. breakthroughs will not be as pricey in the future, and will be made accessible to a wider variety of people — including PWDs.