November 27, 2019
Corinne Purtill for TIME, adapted by TFK editors
It’s karaoke-rehearsal time at the Knollwood military retirement community, in Washington, D.C. Phil Soriano, 86, has hosted singalongs since 2016. Today, he’ll share host duties with a special guest, one who has been at Knollwood for the past six weeks: Stevie.
Soriano wants to sing the song “Y.M.C.A.” while Stevie leads the crowd through the song’s dance moves. This will be difficult. Why? Stevie is a robot.
“We could try to make him dance,” says Niamh Donnelly, Stevie’s lead AI engineer. She types commands on a laptop. The robot stretches its peg-like arms. A grin flashes on its digital face.
Stevie was made by the Robotics and Innovation Lab at Trinity College Dublin, in Ireland. Trinity researchers moved into Knollwood this spring and summer. They’re trying to understand what staff and residents might want from a robot.
At Your Service
Many different robots are used in health care, including some that zip around hospitals hallways like motorized carts and some like dolls that bring patients comfort. Stevie is what’s known as a social robot. It’s designed to interact with people. Stevie responds to words with speech, gestures, and movements. For example, tell Stevie you’re sick, and it frowns and says, “I’m sorry to hear that.” Compliment Stevie, and its screen changes to a smile. At rest, its digital eyes blink, waiting for a command.
Stevie can recognize about 100 common questions, such as “How are you?” Other conversations require a human to type words for Stevie to say. At a social hour with Knollwood residents, Donnelly had Stevie tell a joke: “What did the left eye say to the right?” The punch line: “Between you and me, something smells!”
Researchers thought people would want Stevie to do chores, says Conor McGinn, Stevie’s lead engineer. But surprisingly, residents didn’t want to give Stevie an order and have it scoot away. They wanted Stevie to stay and keep them company.
According to McGinn, when his team asked residents what they liked most about the robot, they said, “It made me laugh” or “It made me smile.”
Jobs At Risk?
Some health-care workers see Stevie as a threat . The monthly cost for the robot would be around half the cost of hiring a human to do the same job. And unlike a human, a robot can be on its feet—well, its wheels—all day and night without getting tired. But Stevie’s creators say they don’t want to replace people. They see robots and human employees working together.
Menbere Gebral is an activities assistant at Knollwood. When Stevie showed up at a recent bingo session, Gebral was wary . “At first, I’m scared,” she says. But after one game, she was convinced. Stevie called out the numbers, freeing Gebral to help the residents. Even with Stevie running the activity, Gebral was constantly busy during bingo hour. And she was busy doing the part of her job that she likes best—interacting with residents. “It’s very helpful,” she says of Stevie.
What about the karaoke show? “Y.M.C.A.” was a success. Phil Soriano led the audience through the lyrics while Stevie’s arms swiveled around, doing the best version of the dance moves its programming could allow. It wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t matter. The audience was happy.
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