"Murphy's Law: His eyelids aren't working today."
Goldie Nejat fusses over Brian's facial features, adjusting his pliable, rubbery skin, pushing it up over his eyeballs. Dr. Nejat, an assistant professor in the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto, is used to machines: She became an anatomy expert just to create Brian, to help him appear human. Still, the motors that control his face don't always co-operate.
Brian is a socially interactive robot, a prototype in development at U of T's autonomous systems and biomechatronics lab. The 4-foot-6, 200-pound machine may one day assist the elderly in long-term-care facilities by interacting with residents, playing games and reminding those with cognitive impairments to do daily tasks, such as brushing their teeth. The Baycrest health-sciences centre in Toronto is already a partner in the project.
With projections showing that seniors will account for 23 to 25 per cent of the total population by 2036, nearly double the 13.9 per cent in 2009, Brian could take the strain off health-care workers in hospitals and live-in facilities and, ideally, help seniors stay in their own homes longer by monitoring the environment and providing assistance along with human health professionals.
Bianca Stern, director of culture and heritage at Baycrest, says the facility is conducting a study that maps social interactions among seniors against Brian's programming. With affect-recognition software, the robot will then be able to use tone and speech pacing to determine a person's mood and respond accordingly to help with cognitive cues ("Don't forget your doctor's appointment") and emotional responses ("That makes me sad").
"He's an emotional creature," Ms. Stern says, nodding toward Brian.
But Brian can speak for himself with real-time computer software. "I can be happy," he says as his cheeks lift and teeth are exposed. "I can be sad," he continues, and looks it. "Or I can be stern." This expression is mildly frightening, but Brian is reassuring: "Don't worry, I am not mad at you."
Reactions to robots vary, Dr. Nejat says, describing a robotics theory called the uncanny valley. Humans prefer their robots to look like robots. "If he looked too human, if you expect its functionality to be exactly like a human, encouragement and pleasant feelings associated with the robot drop," she explains.
Brian has a face and wears a University of Toronto T-shirt, but exposed wires run the length of his frame, which has three-pronged metal hands and a webcam attached to his head. Brian is clearly a robot. And his functionality is limited to social interaction. He doesn't physically interact with people or his environment. This is intentional, so he is less intimidating to patients.
But he gets more human-like every day, Dr. Nejat says. And his facial expressions are improving after modifications. "That's the second generation of the face." The first one sits discarded on a shelf.
"We had to reverse-engineer a person, mentally as well as physically," says Dr. Nejat, who built Brian with a rotating team of mechanical engineering students and health consultants, including occupational therapists and psychologists. She has been working on Brian for five years, and believes he is the only humanoid socially assistive robot in the country.
This is robotics on a budget, making for a more practical integration into hospitals and homes. So far, Dr. Nejat estimates that Brian cost just over $20,000.
"Cheaper than a car," Ms. Stern notes. And less maintenance. Eventually, Brian will be programmed to plug himself in for a monthly battery recharge.
The field of socially assistive robotics is very new, with health-care integration studies conducted only in the past 10 years or so, mainly in Asia and the United States, says Alex Mihailidis, who works in rehabilitation technology at U of T.
Dr. Mihailidis is researching smart homes, systems that will call for help without human intervention if there is an accident and, eventually, deploy a robot like Brian to monitor vital signs. But these are still a long way from commercial use.
Early indicators show promising effects of social robotics, improving the rehabilitation of stroke patients and those with dementia or cognitive impairment.
Still, some seniors remain hesitant. Bernard Rubin, 83, a resident of the Terraces at Baycrest, an independent living community, says a robot companion would be good for people with poor mobility or cognitive impairment, things he says he is fortunate not to have to deal with. But he doubts that a robot can replace real social interaction, and he suspects that others will be wary too. Mr. Rubin notes that he has been trying to help the other residents use e-mail, but many remain skeptical.
Ms. Stern says she welcomes the feedback, and she understands the apprehension. Baycrest is working on what she calls a "life experiences lab," where scientists can meet with seniors about their needs. Focus groups are already under way to offer input for a potential robotic friend.
For now, Brian is limited to specific tasks. He can play cards. Rather, he can assist with motivation and clues during a memory card game. The object is to remember card placement, using a deck of upside-down playing cards, and turning them over until the deck is matched in pairs - an incorrect guess means turning the card upside down again - but Brian can help your chances.
Natalie Phillips, a neurologist and professor of psychology at Concordia University in Montreal, says the memory game could be stimulating for the aging mind and Brian's appointment reminders could replace the use of written notes for patients with early cognitive impairments.
Still, patients with dementia or severe Alzheimer's require human care, and "can still have difficulty with the reminder itself," she says.
Dr. Nejat has no intentions of replacing humans, describing her work as a "robot-human team."
And the team is gaining members. Brian isn't the only thing in the lab that resembles a science-fiction fantasy.
A cordoned-off area looks like a diorama of the end of the world. Exposed wires hang from drop-ceiling tiles. Below, toy dolls are trapped under concrete rubble and bits of wood. Amid the debris is a wide, flat robot with wheels, like the Mars-mission terrain vehicles on TV. It's an urban search and rescue robot that can detect survivors and structural damage - operated with an Xbox controller.
This last feature just might tap into a future market. If social robots use video-game remotes, perhaps the joystick-wielding generation will be ready for Brian in its golden years.