Hasbro, Brown to develop AI dogs, cats to assist elderly

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A group of researchers from Brown University is teaming up with a team from Hasbro to design a smart, robotic companion to assist older people with simple but sometimes challenging tasks of everyday living.

The project is called ARIES (Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support) and will use artificial intelligence to Hasbro’s current Joy for All Companion Pets. The pets are animatronic dogs and cats designed to provide interactive companionship, comfort  and joy to older adults.

A Brown Unviersity spokesperson said the research team’s main goal is to develop additional capabilities for ARIES companions to help older adults with simple everyday tasks, such as finding lost objects, medication reminders or other tasks that can be challenging, especially for those who have dementia.

The project is supported by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation and is led by Brown’s Humanity-Centered Robotic’s Initiative (HCRI).

“Hasbro did a great job developing a product that can provide comfort and joy for older people,” said Bertram Malle, a professor in Brown’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences and co-director of HCRI. “What we want to do now is leverage our expertise in cognitive and computer science to add capabilities to this robotic pet. Neither of us could do this on our own, but together we have the expertise to potentially develop something truly beneficial.”

The researchers will conduct user studies to learn the kinds of tasks in which a robotic companion might be helpful. (Photo courtesy of Hasbro)

Over the next three years, the university said the group plans to perform a variety of user studies to understand how ARIES might best assist older adults. The team will then work on developing and integrating a variety of artificial intelligence technologies meeting the identified needs of older adults.

These idenfitied needs could include:

  • Keeping track of important objects around the house (such as keys or eyeglasses)
  • Help the person remember important tasks (such as taking medication or doctors appointments)
  • Enhancing safety

The university said the team will also study means of effective communication between the ARIES companion and users.

“The Joy for All Companion Pets currently make some realistic pet sounds and gestures,” Malle said. “We may want to expand those capacities and add intelligence to them, so the companions give meaningful clues — gestures, nudges, purrs — that help to guide users toward misplaced objects or let them know that it’s time to do something.”

Malle said the early user studies will play a key role in how the project unfolds.

“There are some things — like locating objects and taking medications — that we know from the literature people find useful,” he explained. “But in our first year we want to find out what other challenges people face that we don’t know about, and then see if we can develop technologies to address them.”

A Brown University spokesperson said one factor that researchers need to consider is the cost of the product.

“The ‘A’ in ARIES stands for ‘affordable,’ and that’s something we’re taking very seriously,” said Michael Littman, a computer science professor at Brown. “This is one of the important reasons Hasbro is a great industry partner for this project. The current Joy for All pets cost roughly $100 while similar robotic products can cost $5,000 to $6,000. We want the ARIES robot to be available to anyone who needs it.”

Ultimately, the university says the team hopes to complete a prototype and test it with target users by the end of the three project years. Researchers hope this product can complement the support elderly people receive from human caregivers.

“To us, this project really represents what we do at HCRI, which is to let societal needs drive technology development,” Malle said. “We know that caring for an aging population will be a tremendous challenge in the coming years, and we think technologies like ARIES could play a small but potentially important role in helping people meet that challenge.”