Friday, October 24, 2008

News: Robots inspired by Service Dogs

In a world dominated by machines it comes as no surprise that the Georgia Institute of Technology has come up with a robot capable of performing some of the skills regularly performed by a service dog for their partner. This concept of machines and gadgets to assist people with disabilities is nothing new. Choosing how a person will negotiate the world with a disability is a second by second decision of how best to accomplish the task at hand. Should the person attempt to open the door by themselves (even if doing so may mean they used vast amounts of energy, or risk falling), wait for a person to open the door for them, install an expensive door opener, or rely on their ever-ready service dog to open the door with them. Should a person with balance and strength related issues with their disability use crutches, canes, walkers, a manual wheelchair, a power wheelchair, walk with the assistance of a trusted friend or family member, or use a well-trained and ever ready balance service dog. These are only two examples of the choices people with disabilities make every second of everyday.

Service dogs are living, sentient beings that provide more than a means of accomplishing the task at hand. Recently, at the Summit Assistance Dogs annual graduation one of the recipients of a service dog summed up some of the reasons people choose to partner with service dogs, "All my life I have had to depend on other people and tools to accomplish the things I want. All of these people and things have meant that people my own age often stay away and I have felt dependant. Now with my service dog I have someone who can not only help me do thing, but who needs me as well. My dog also helps people have something that does not make them worried about saying something wrong to talk to me about."

These robots are simply another option for people with disabilities living a world built for people who don't yet know what it is like to want to go into their neighborhood hangout out only to be confronts by an impossibly steep flight of stairs, or to decide whether to spend their limited energy on taking a shower or fixing breakfast. A robot may be able to open the door, bring you things, turn on the light, and other tasks, however a robot cannot change the way it does these tasks on a moment by moment basis to respond to a change in level of disability or provide joy and comfort.

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