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A Team Is Developing Robotic Arms to Feed People With Spinal Injuries

Robots could become crucial caregivers in the near-future.

Robots could become crucial caregivers in the future, with new technologies constantly in development to help improve the quality of life for the globe's aging population and for people with physical disabilities.

One example comes from Cornell University scientist Tapomayukh Bhattacharjee who is developing a robotic arm to help feed people with spinal injuries, a press statement explains.

A robot as an extension of the body

Bhattacharjee, an assistant professor of computer science at Cornell, believes that robots have the potential to transform caregiving and that eating is one of the key areas where they could provide a helping robotic hand. 

The roboticist was recently granted a four-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation's National Robotics Initiative to help him and his EmPRISE Lab develop caregiving robotics solutions for people with physical disabilities.

"Feeding is one of the most basic activities," Bhattacharjee said. "Imagine yourself asking someone else to feed you every morsel of food in your day-to-day life. It just completely takes away the sense of independence.

"And so, if we could solve this feeding challenge," he continued, "if a person could perceive this robot as an extension of their own body, then they will feel much more independent. That's why I am so passionate about solving this."

Robot arms that adapt to human preference

In his grant proposal, Bhattacharjee did concede that "despite great strides" taken in recent years, "robots are far from ready for adoption in real-home environments as long-term caregiving solutions." One recent prototype saw Toyota announce a robot that hangs from the ceiling and can carry out household chores for the elderly, though it is far from going into production.

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Still, Bhattacharjee and his team are working on developing machine learning algorithms that will help robotic arms to safely feed someone, particularly in cases where they cannot move to take the food from the robotic arm. Over time, these algorithms should help the robotic arm to learn the user's preferences, making it easier for the machine to do its job. 

"If we really want a long-term caregiving solution, the solution needs to be personalized to the user," Bhattacharjee said "And just like a patient and a caregiver need time to get used to each other, it’s the same with a patient and a robot."

The work of Bhattacharjee and others could go hand in hand with new soft robotics developments that allow manipulators to pick up sensitive objects. In 2019, for example, scientists at Harvard University developed a robotic hand so soft that it could handle a jellyfish underwater without causing it any harm.

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All of this is crucial work. According to the WHO, between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world's population that is over 60 years of age is likely to almost double from 12 percent to 22 percent. The world's aging population means that the caregiving industry will increasingly need new solutions to help those that need it most.

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