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Spring 2004 - Robotic research

Destination Purdue > Spring 2004 - Robotic research

Robotic research puts a new spin on "man's best friend"

By Kathryn Bennett

Ruth Lawson

Photo provided by University News Service

Ruth Lawson, a participant in the Purdue University study that will evaluate the impact of robotic dogs on the ederly, pets AIBO's paw.

Playing with robots isn't just for kids anymore. That's what Alan Beck, professor of ecology in Purdue University's School of Veterinary Medicine, attempting to prove with his research project. His experiment examines the effect a robotic dog, the Sony AIBO, has on both children and elderly test subjects.

The study, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, examines how technology affects human relationships with animals, Beck said. Beck and collaborator Peter Kahn, professor at the University of Washington, hope to find out if robotic animals can replace relationships with live animals for target populations like the elderly or disabled.

Beck, Kahn and Gail Melson, Purdue professor of child and family studies, have already completed testing children’s interactions with AIBO and are now comparing their behavior with the robot to their behavior with a living dog. Erik Garrett, graduate student in the School of Liberal Arts, is working with Beck to evaluate the children’s test results. Garrett said he was surprised because the children seem to treat the real dog and the robot in a similar way, which went against his initial opinion of the study. "I thought the kids would treat the robot as more of a toy," Garrett said. "I was surprised at how involved some of the kids got."

The scientists, together with Nancy Edwards, Purdue professor of nursing, also have embarked on study with older adults in retirement facilities. Many of these homes will not permit pets, Beck said, so his team is researching whether AIBO would be a good replacement for living animals. Senior citizens get to keep AIBO for six weeks and maintain a journal about their interactions with the robot. Beck said the study seems to be favoring AIBO so far.

"It's just interactive enough, just fun enough to give them the illusion and give them something to talk to," Beck said. AIBO also increases social interactions about the elderly, Beck said. "Everyone from grandkids to neighbors wants to see it," he said.

Beck said the study also has raised questions about animal ethics. He said one of the most interesting parts of the study is that no test subject thinks it's okay to abuse AIBO. "It amazes me that everyone agrees it's a machine - but no one thinks it's okay to hit it," he said. "It's a little ethical opportunity, a little window into just what animal welfare is."

Beck said the future of robotic dogs has unbounded room for expansion. Scientists in Japan have already created a prototype health-monitoring machine in the form of a furry animal. Patients hold the creature, and a computer inside measures qualities such as pulse rate and blood pressure. This kind of sensing equipment could ower patient anxiety and provide more accurate readings.