Brown, Hasbro Come Together to Develop Robotic Companions to Aid Seniors

Academic researchers, led by cognitive and computer scientists from Brown University, are collaborating with a cross-functional team from international play and entertainment leader Hasbro to design a smart robotic companion capable of helping older people with simple but sometimes challenging activities in daily life.

A more helpful companion - A new collaboration aims to add artificial intelligence to Hasbro's existing robotic companions, with the aim of enabling them to help older people with basic daily tasks like remembering to take medications. (Credit: Hasbro)

The project, nicknamed ARIES (Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support), will incorporate artificial intelligence capabilities to Hasbro’s existing Joy for All Companion Pets — animatronic cats and dogs built to provide interactive companionship, joy and comfort for older adults. The research team’s goal is to formulate more capabilities for the ARIES companions to assist older adults with simple tasks that could include medication reminders, help in locating lost objects, or other tasks that sometimes become difficult, particularly for those who may have mild dementia.

The research is funded by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation and will be led by Brown’s Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative (HCRI), a group of computer and social science researchers who study the societal opportunities and challenges posed by robotics. The academic project team also includes researchers from Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School, Butler and Bradley hospitals in Providence, R.I., and the University of Cincinnati.

Hasbro did a great job developing a product that can provide comfort and joy for older people, 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.

Bertram Malle, professor in Brown’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, co-director of HCRI and main investigator

Over the subsequent three years, the group aims to perform numerous user studies to comprehend how ARIES might best aid older adults. Then they will work on designing and integrating an assortment of artificial intelligence technologies that will meet the requirements identified in the user studies. These could include sensor systems that allow the ARIES companion to recognize and keep track of crucial objects around the house, such as glasses or keys, help the person remember vital tasks and events, and improve safety.

The team will also investigate means of effective communication between the ARIES companion and users.

“The Joy for All Companion Pets currently make some realistic pet sounds and gestures,” Malle said. “We may want to expand those capacities and add intelligence to them, so the companions give meaningful clues — gestures, nudges, purrs — that help to guide users toward misplaced objects or let them know that it’s time to do something.”

The early user studies will play an important role in how the project develops, Malle says.

“There are some things — like locating objects and taking medications — that we know from the literature people find useful,” he said. “But in our first year we want to find out what other challenges people face that we don’t know about, and then see if we can develop technologies to address them.”

One important factor the team will keep in mind is cost.

The ‘A’ in ARIES stands for ‘affordable,’ and that's something we're taking very seriously, this is one of the important reasons Hasbro is a great industry partner for this project. The current Joy for All pets cost roughly $100 while similar robotic products can cost $5,000 to $6,000. We want the ARIES robot to be available to anyone who needs it.

Michael Littman, professor of computer science at Brown and co-principal investigator on the grant.

Eventually, the team hopes to finish a prototype and test it with target users within the three project years. The researchers stress that they do not anticipate this to be a technology that can replace human caregivers. They hope instead that it can balance the work of caregivers and help in a small way to cope with the challenge posed by an aging population.

“To us, this project really represents what we do at HCRI, which is to let societal needs drive technology development,” Malle said. “We know that caring for an aging population will be a tremendous challenge in the coming years, and we think technologies like ARIES could play a small but potentially important role in helping people meet that challenge.”

Ted Fischer, vice president for business development at Hasbro, says the company has been happy with the response to its Joy for All line.

Social isolation and loneliness are growing issues for older adults and our companion pets make people smile, Hasbro’s expertise in play and engaging experiences in collaboration with leading scientists from Brown’s HCRI is a powerful combination to explore additional impactful uses for ARIES companions.

Ted Fischer, vice president for business development at Hasbro

The research team will include Peter Haas, associate director of HCRI; HCRI postdoctoral researchers Maartje de Graaf and Elizabeth Philips; Michael Armey from Butler Hospital and Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School; Gary Epstein-Lubow from Butler, Brown and Hebrew Senior Life; Claudia Rébola, an industrial design professor at the University of Cincinnati; Ron Seifer of Bradley Hospital; and a multidisciplinary team from Hasbro including designers, engineers and marketing professionals.

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