Algunos lo imaginaban y otros lo temían. “El fisioterapeuta robot” está listo para pasar a una siguiente fase y para la comercialización. Eso sí, aunque el nombre pueda engañar el fisioterapeuta sigue siendo absolutamente necesario para programar los movimientos que queremos que el robot haga. En fin, esta noticia no es nueva, pero estoy seguro que muchos desconocen y temen estas aplicaciones. ¿Serán un éxito o un fracaso? ¿De qué factores depende esto?
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The rise of robots
Hungarian therapeutic system almost in commercial stage
A unique therapeutic robot system, Reharob, is expected to go commercial later this year or in the first half of 2008, says one of the clever minds behind the project, Senior Researcher in Mechanical Engineering András Tóth from Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BME).
Robots were once confined to specialiyed applications in industry, where users received extensive training on their use, but they are increasingly being used by ordinary people. Robot vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers are already in some homes, and robotic toys are increasingly popular with children. There are forecasts that robots will routinely carry out surgery by 2018, and in September 2006 South Korea unveiled a machine/ gun-toting sentry robot designed to patrol the heavily fortified border with North Korea.
|Photo: BME” width=”250″ height=”289″> Physio-robot at work > Photo: BME|
The most promising development in robotics in Hungary at the moment is probably the Reharob project, in which a robot has been developed to carry out parts of the very repetitive, but at the same time delicate, work of a physiotherapist helping stroke patients to recover. The idea – a world-first in 1999 – was to use standard industrial robots from the Swedish engineering company ABB – robots which are widely used in factories and are relatively cheap because they’re harmonized – and adapt and fine-tune them, says Tóth. Industrial robots can perform a wide range of three-dimensional movements. They are accurate, powerful, and compliant, and they can perform many of the highly repetitive tasks required of physiotherapists.
But because of the legal barriers and heavy motion patterns, industrial robots were deemed unsuitable for use in rehabilitation robotics. “Also in, for example, a car factory, a robot functions without people even coming close; while with physiotherapy touching a person is essential. Our crucial tasks was to minutely control the force of the robot and make it totally reliable,” says Tóth.
The project, a cooperation between BME and the National Institute for Medical Rehabilitation in Budapest and supported by other academic institutions in the UK, Germany and Bulgaria, was partly financed with EU money and resulted in a prototype of two cooperating ABB robots. There was a series of short clinical trials in 2003 and a year-long trial in 2005.
“It was”, says Tóth, “an immense satisfaction when, one day, I entered the clinic and found a patient alone in the room with the robot device doing its work, while the physiotherapist had gone out for a halfhour or so to do something else. It meant that patient and physiotherapist trusted the robot completely and that is a measure of success.”
The project then got stuck for a while for several reasons, but all that is now going to change. ABB brought a new, fifth generation industrial robot controller, which is better suited to deal with humanrobot contact problems, onto the market and new EU funding is being arranged. Special software for this new robot has also been developed and a new clinical trial will be carried out soon. After a detailed market survey the launch of the commercial application could then start at the end of this year or early 2009, Tóth hopes.
There has, until now, only been one US project in the market of upper-limb therapeutic robots which has been successful business-wise. But according to Tóth Reharob definitely has that potential, as well, as stroke is one of the most common major neurological disorders affecting Europe’s citizens, with 80% of survivors having significant neurological impairment and 31% needing help in everyday activities. In the European Union the average incidence is between 150 and 400 per 100,000 people. Reharob strongly improves the possibility of rehabilitation for these patients.
Overall, Hungary is not in the forefront of robotic developments compared to South Korea, Japan, the United States and, in Europe, countries like Germany, Holland or Britain. Under the communist system robotics was assigned to countries like Bulgaria and East Germany, not Hungary.
In the ’90s most development took place in the industrial robot sector. Multinational companies setting up production facilities in Hungary brought new technologies with them, especially in the automotive, electrotechnical and machine industries. Today, there are some 300-500 industrial robots in Hungary. There are also a few medical robots operational in some hospitals and medical institutions (though robots doing surgery still cost far beyond the means of most).
But there are several academic institutions involved in research and there are, besides Reharob, several other interesting projects in robotics under development in Hungary: the development of a new type of service robot for bomb disposal, the development of a robot device to assist civil protection specialists (in cases of fire, chemical spills or disasters), and – the very latest Tóth is working on himself – a completely new robotic device to assist disabled people at home. “We are thinking of a spider-like mechanism which is able to collaborate with the user and which is working from the ceiling down, so it doesn’t interfere with tables and chairs and so on.”
Talk about an ethical code for robots is, as far as Hungary is concerned, still very theoretical, according to Tóth. “Still, ethical considerations do already play a strong role in our work, too; in our case, for example, how to deal with patient data.”
> Ethical code for robots
|Caption Talking robot at the Jövő Háza in Budapest Photo: Sophie Beau|
As robots become more intelligent, it will become harder to decide who is responsible if they injure someone. Is the designer to blame, or the user, or the robot itself? A group of leading roboticists called the European Robotics Network (EURON) has started lobbying governments for legislation. And South Korea, front-runner in robotics, recently even announced it is drawing up a “Robot Ethics Charter” for manufacturers and users. Its key considerations are preventing illegal use, protecting data acquired by robots and establishing clear identification and traceability of machines. But the charter will also cover ethical standards to be programmed into robots. A five-member task force including experts, futurists and a science fiction writer began working on the code in November 2006.
The government’s guidelines will reflect the “Three Laws of Robotics” put forward by science fiction author Isaac Asimov in the 1940s. These are:
- A robot may not injure a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given by a human unless these conflict with the first law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as this does not conflict with the first or second law.
In fact, programming a real robot to follow these laws would itself be very difficult. For a start, the robot would need to be able to tell humans apart from similar-looking things such as chimpanzees, statues and humanoid robots. Also, the robot would have to be capable of telling an order apart from a casual request, which would involve more research in the field of natural language processing. And if robots can feel pain and develop emotions, as some experts think they will, should they be granted certain rights? Should they be allowed to marry humans or own property?
These questions might sound farfetched, but debates over animal rights would have seemed equally far-fetched to many people just a few decades ago.
Autor: Samuel Franco Domínguez