Aibo’s Cousin, A Service Dog?

Earlier this week, Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak suggested that Robots will make humans their pets, as he has no doubt artificial intelligence will take over the world.   His paranoia comes on the heels of warnings by Elon Musk and Steven Hawking.  Human pets? Just the contrary, robots are now our service dogs.


This week in London researchers at King’s College and Sheffield Hallam University developed a new ‘robot on reins’ that can help blind people navigate using tactile sensors and vibrations. The proof-of-concept currently looks like a vacuum cleaner or lawnmower but future versions will be smaller and more lightweight for home use.  Engineers said that in addition to helping the blind, these robots could also benefit firefighters (e.g, by helping them moving through smoke-filled buildings to find people more easily).

The small mobile robots are equipped with sensors that lead the way, with the user following up to 3ft  behind holding a rein. A special sleeve covering the user’s arm would then be fitted with electronic micro-vibrators. This sleeve would turn the signals sent back by the robot into detailed data that the blind person, firefighter or other user would have been trained to interpret. These vibrations could also provide data about the size, shape and even the stiffness of any object it finds.


Jacques Penders, from Sheffield Hallam University, explained that the four-year project has seen the team using the tactile robot in a number of scenarios from a university gym to a smoke-filled cave in Germany. The team has also developed a so-called ‘tactile language’ for the robots and now plans to explore how reins and haptic signals could help older people in their homes. The robot can also sense any hesitation or resistance from the user and adjust its pace accordingly. In addition, it would be programmed to predict the follower’s next actions, based on the way they are moving as well as on their previous actions. In trials, blind-folded volunteers were guided by a robot, and by using an algorithm the robot could detect their level of trust (like my dog Buddy).

Dr. Thrishantha Nanayakkara of King’s College London said, “we’ve made important advances in understanding robot-human interactions and applied these to a classic life-or-death emergency scenario where literally every second counts.  Robots on reins could add an invaluable extra dimension to firefighting capabilities.”


A firefighter has 20 minutes to get in and out before his oxygen tank expires, a blind person is helpless without his guide dog or cane, in both instances trust is paramount. I think Wozniak, Musk and Harking should remember Roosevelt’s inspiring message, “we have nothing to fear, except fear itself.”

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