Helpful Robot Friends
Thousands of infants born each year with sensorimotor, social, and cognitive impairments can benefit from early motion interventions, such as body-weight-supported locomotion, that are designed to encourage motor exploration and practice. Naomi Fitter, assistant professor of robotics, thinks robots can act as an extension of physical therapist care. Supported by a National Science Foundation grant, she is developing novel hardware and algorithms for robot-mediated physical therapy interventions that can be tailored to individual children.
“Introducing a robot to help a child go through a physical therapy routine can help physical therapists work with more patients at once, help human therapists provide new types of intervention that don’t currently exist, and fill in gaps between physical therapy appointments,” Fitter said.
For a recent study, Fitter, who works closely with child development specialists, occupational therapists, and kinesiology experts, programmed a robot to model leg-extension kicks in front of 6-month-old infants. She found the infants in the study imitated the leg motion more often when the robot engaged them with light and noise rewards. Her NSF grant will fund additional studies in clinical and home-based settings.
Fitter knows that for her physical therapy robot to succeed, it will need to have a pleasant bedside manner. Among her efforts to make human-robot interactions smoother and more playful are a robot programmed to deliver the perfect high-five; a robot that roams people’s desk and reminds them to take work-day breaks; and Jon the Robot, a joke-telling robot inspired by Fitter’s background as a standup comedian.
“It’s important that as these systems emerge in spaces where we’re living and interacting and spending our day-to-day lives, that they’re intelligent, ethical, and fun to interact with,” Fitter said.
Fitter discusses her research on human-robot interactions in season 9, episode 6 of “Engineering Out Loud,” the podcast of the College of Engineering at Oregon State University. Subscribe on Spotify or Apple Podcasts, or listen online at https://engineering.oregonstate.edu/outloud/.