A new kind of therapist: Steve Dimon, a stroke patient at Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center in California, does exercises with the help of Bandit, an assistive robot./USA TODAY
By Rebecca Lurye, USA TODAY
After a stroke in April left Steve Dimon paralyzed and on life support, he felt trapped inside his own body, unable to move a finger or wiggle his toes on his left side.
"A stroke is the cruelest joke to mankind," says Dimon, who can now walk unassisted. "It's like reading a Stephen King novel. ... It's like, will I ever move again? Will I ever talk again?"
Weeks of rigorous rehabilitation at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in California also were exhausting, until a different kind of therapist paid a visit to the Los Angeles native: a robot named Bandit.
At first glance, Bandit lacks many of the qualities of a good coach or companion. But with its shiny gray metal face, cameras for eyes and a simple wire mouth, it has been using its well-honed social skills to help improve the quality of life of stroke victims.
Designed by researchers at the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering, Bandit motivates and corrects patients as they carry out strenuous exercises. It's one of several efforts nationwide to tap the abilities of robots to provide assistance and social interaction in health care.
Other researchers are developing the use of socially assistive robots in working with patients who have Alzheimer's disease and children with autism spectrum disorders. Rancho Los Amigos and USC launched a study in mid-June that aims to compare improvements in stroke patients working with robots with those working only with humans.
Patients seem to readily accept their robot companions and trainers - even older adults who might be leery of other new technology take to the "cute" Bandit as if it were a child. And patients often practice strenuous and repetitive exercises for longer periods with the robot, and sometimes even engage in banter.
"It was definitely fun," says Dimon, 63, who spent three hours "playing" with the robot. "It was like a diversion from the tediousness of rehab."
Others seem to agree. Instead of putting off rehab, some patients ask to return to spend more time with Bandit, researcher Eric Wade says.
That extra therapy can make all the difference, says Mindy Aisen, chief medical officer at Rancho Los Amigos. "The social robot (is like) the cheerleader that never gets fatigued - and it's fun to mimic."
Wade says patients should exercise weakened limbs for at least six months, but many get far less rehabilitation because of the costs. Robots can serve as an additional resource in fields already stretched thin to meet growing demand for services, researchers say.
Though social robots are at least a decade away from market, one study in the works already is looking into how robots can adapt to a home environment. As now designed, robots may malfunction if they have to navigate around new furniture or adapt to new sounds.
The KUKA youBot, a flat, boxy robot that can roll and grab objects, may help cross that hurdle. The Robot Autonomy and Interactive Learning lab at the Worcester (Mass.) Polytechnic Institute put one in a model apartment. Internet users will be able to log on later this summer to teach it tasks such as knocking items off a table, so the team can collect data on how people teach robots, says lab director Sonia Chernova.
The field of socially assistive robotics has grown slowly over 20 years, but it got a boost in April when the National Science Foundation granted $10 million to a Yale-led team of 17 principal investigators at four universities, including USC, to develop a robot that would adapt while working with a preschool-age child for months or even a year.
As the field grows, researchers expect robots to be embraced as a tool for therapy, rehab and even to learn skills such as speaking a second language.
"It may seem counterintuitive to say, 'Do we want robots in people's lives?' says Maja Mataric of USC. "But I think that's going back to people's natures. We're very social creatures."