Human Touch: Scientist Maja Mataric.

Human Touch: Scientist Maja Mataric. Photo by Ringo Chiu.

Robots don’t have feelings, but they might be able to help with yours.

That’s the thesis of Pasadena’s Embodied Inc., a startup co-founded by USC computer science professor Maja Matarić, which is developing so-called socially assistive robots to motivate individuals to adopt healthy behaviors.

Socially assistive robots are machines that can converse with human users and encourage them to complete tasks. After piling up more than 15 years of research on robots doing such things as encouraging stroke patients to rehabilitate or autistic children to socialize, Matarić’s company is working to commercialize the concept.

The startup announced last month that it plans to begin field testing its machines before the end of the year and is aiming to produce a mass-market robot that could retail for as little as $500; the specific application has yet to be announced.

“The grand vision is that we are developing personalized-companion robots,” said Matarić, Embodied’s chief science officer. “My personal philosophy is one robot per person.”

In particular, socially assistive robots could be deployed in the health care industry to meet growing demand for therapists, she said. Occupational therapy and physical therapist aides are the professions in the United States most at risk of facing a labor shortage in the next 15 years, according to research by nonprofit industry group Conference Board of New York.

Robotics and health care experts both say robots could be a solution.

“Doctors and nurses really don’t have the time they’d like to spend with each patient in order to help the patient understand their post-leaving-the-hospital instructions,” said Justine Cassell, associate dean of technology strategy and impact for Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science in Pittsburgh. “Robots on the other hand – and virtual humans – do have endless amounts of time.”

Right moment

Matarić, 51, said the timing was right to take a sabbatical from USC and found Embodied in January 2016.

“It is a confluence of events,” she said. “After 15 years of research we know enough of what to do and what not to do. Technology is ready in ways that it wasn’t 15 years ago.”

One of her research robots, dubbed Bandit, sits on a wheel base with a torso that supports humanlike mechanical arms, a head that pans and tilts, and a mouth that moves when it speaks. The robot uses its arms to demonstrate certain rehabilitation exercises for stroke victims, for example. It watches a user with a set of dual cameras to make sure the exercises are done right and when it sees exercises done well it offers encouraging words, such as “excellent” or “terrific.”

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