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Experts using AI to help people cope during pandemic: 'Robots are our friends'

Posted at 1:14 PM, Sep 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-02 14:14:11-04

During this pandemic, people aren’t interacting like they used to.

Many schools have moved online, restaurants have moved outdoors, and public transportation is spacing out its seating.

With less face-to-face interaction in the real world, scientists are now turning to artificial intelligence.

“Robots are our friends,” said Jeffrey Krichmar, Ph.D., a professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

Recently, Krichmar’s team started testing socially assistive robots with the goal of helping people perform household chores, accomplish health care tasks and even offer them emotional support.

“That could be very helpful if a person is impaired and can’t get help in the home because they’re locked down or quarantined,” he said.

Krichmar says there’s a lot of societal benefits with this technology, too, like helping people cope with their feelings during isolation.

“If I’m not able to get to you, but you have a robot there I can log on through the robot, have a conversation with you and then maybe do tasks around the house with a robot,” he said.

Many of UCI’s robotic projects involve the Toyota Human Support Robot.

“When you think about the social interaction, I think we’re all feeling this right now,” said Douglas Moore, Toyota’s director of technology for human support.

Moore says working with UCI during the COVID-19 crisis could help many people both physically and emotionally.

“One of the silver linings that I think we’re going to get out of this pandemic that we’re currently in, we’re going to develop a little bit more sympathy and empathy for the communities that idea with this on a day-to-day basis that have no real light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Project leaders hope to get more of these robots in people’s homes

“The ones that we’re doing with Toyota, they’re not commercially available yet and the ones that are a little pricey,” Krichmar said. “They’re like an expensive luxury car right now.”

Krichmar believes more interest could help lower the cost of these robots and that more attention could create future innovation.

“This pandemic is our Fukushima moment in a way,” Krichmar said of the COVID-19 crisis.

“If this drags on a lot longer, it might be actually useful for this particular crisis,” he said. “But I’m almost thinking like the next crisis down the road.”