NAO, a 23-inch tall robot, performs a 30-second Tai Chi routine, gracefully moving its arms up in the air.
At the same time, Kevyn Martinez, a 20-year-old communications major at the University of Texas at Arlington, stands behind the small robot, mirroring its movements.
The goal here is more than just having a few seconds of fun. At UTA’s Emotional Robotics Living Lab, students and researchers are working to see if robots like NAO can provide an emotional connection for lonely senior citizens.
The UTA team recently conducted a study at an independent senior living facility where NAO would recite the first 12 lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) and the older adults would respond with the last two lines.
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“There was a decrease in depression and an increase in engagement so this gave us some fantastic ideas to expand that study and we’re still doing that right now,” said Julienne Greer, UTA assistant professor of Theatre Arts and director of the lab.
In a separate study, UTA is looking at whether robots can help older adults with dementia. Greer also sees potential for younger generations who may be more comfortable dealing with machines than other humans.
“A part of this is getting them out of their shells and interacting with the thing they’re comfortable with — which is technology,” Greer said.
UTA isn’t building the robots — they are both from SoftBank Robotics. Pepper, another involved in the study, has large, expressive eyes and lifelike gestures while the much smaller NAO is more mobile and can walk and exercises like Tai Chi. Both are designed to be companions to humans.
The project is interdisciplinary so Greer is working on the project with Ling Xu and Noelle Fields, both assistant professors in UTA’s School of Social Work, and Kris Doelling, research engineer at UTA Research Institute (UTARI). It was funded with a $20,000 seed grant from UTA’s Interdisciplinary Research Program.
In another study, UTA is looking at whether theater interventions with robots can also have positive effects on older adults with dementia or cognitive decline who live in assisted living facilities.
The hope if that the robots may remind forgetful seniors to take their medications or “simply be a gap in between the time their families can come and visit,” Greer said.
But the interaction is a two-way street.
Jugal Buddhadev, 23, a graduate mechanical engineering student from Dallas, has been working on programming NAO for the last 7-8 weeks. It has been a challenge.
“At the beginning of the semester, I was as blank as anybody else,” Buddhadev said. “As much as I teach the robots to be intelligent, they have taught me.”
And what have the robots taught him?
“Patience,” Buddhadev said.