Researcher Explores Integration of Robots into Common Spaces for Social Good

ComArtSci Assistant Professor Hee Rin Lee, Ph.D., Designs Robots for Health and Work Spaces to Achieve Social Good

Robots have been seen in popular media since the 1950s, when they ran rampant in B-rated horror movies and sci-fi tropes. Now, robots are common in everyday spaces, from assembly lines to the electronics we use at home. 

What Assistant Professor Hee Rin Lee, in MSU’s Department of Media and Information, wishes to explore is how we can integrate robots into our lives for social good, whether it be in a retirement community or a bustling factory.

Robotic Inspirations

Lee first moved to the United States from South Korea a decade ago to attend graduate school. As she tried to fit into American society, Lee encountered many different experiences that amounted to culture shock in her new home. Her need for cultural adjustment led to her interest in implementing robots in human spaces. Lee stated there is a parallel here. Robots have to undergo a form of culture shock when integrating into human life, just as Lee did upon arriving in the U.S.

Lee wanted to not only bridge this divide, but to also improve human experiences with robots once this divide is crossed, while at the same time addressing the need for social intervention.

Robots in their current usage in factories, for example, are segregated to their own section of the workspace. Lee said they are focused on efficiency. To her, there are greater possibilities for the establishment of robots in the workforce than separation and improved workflow. There exists a lack of interaction with humans when addressing the presence of robots. 

“Those people were engineers, which means when you’re trained in school, what you’re learning is how to talk to machines. You’re not really getting into this space, how you interview people and analyze data,” said Lee.

Lee wants to take the interaction of robots and humans a step further, with a focus on the positive social impacts robots can have on humans. Through working with elders with dementia, nurses in hospitals, and factory workers, Lee plans to assist humans with the implementation of robots to assist with their own needs.

Personalized Robotic Elder Care

Lee’s goal is to help those who are marginalized in society. This first came to fruition through her work with elders. She sought to personalize care below the surface of what we see, of what gets recorded on the medical charts. These human-friendly robots would not be focused on disabilities or the typical stereotypes related to aging, but on what support the elders in her study felt they needed in their everyday lives.

Lee went about creating individualized prototypes for robots that could suit elders’ specific needs. She began by interviewing the elders, not for their medical condition or what they needed assistance with, but to learn about them as unique individuals who have lived fulfilling lives. 

“That became my focus,” Lee said. “How can I reflect those groups? What are their actual issues? How can we design a robot to support them from their perspective?”

Using post-it notes, the elders determined their own frame of aging and their own interpretation of their health. The elders created situational maps to highlight their needs. Lee then worked closely with the elders to design the robots and created customized prototypes. The elders in the study tested and used the prototypes, and Lee reworked the design based on their feedback.

The concept of using robots to assist aging citizens is not uncharted territory. Lee discussed the previous ventures many robotists have had into assisted living and in improving the lives of older adults with machines. 

“It becomes really interesting research, because they were so interested in robots but they didn’t really think about how elders would feel about this,” said Lee. “Robotists’ understanding of aging and older adults’ understanding of aging is completely different.”

AI Implications in Nursing

Lee’s most recent work took place in the sterilized white walls of the common hospital. She and her research partner, Angelique Taylor, a Ph.D. student at the University of California - San Diego, noticed a power hierarchy between physicians and nurse practitioners in the medical space, where they were concerned with errors in patient care. Lee explained that nurses felt overlooked when they spoke up to “stop the line” when patient safety was at risk, because of their level of power in the workplace.

Lee and Taylor developed a group tracking algorithm that nurses can use to keep track of errors they find made by their cohorts, in order to ensure there is no cross contamination of germs in the workplace. The technology has broader implications in team communication and improving everyday workflow.

During her work, Lee said she observed a shortage of nurses at the hospital. So, the team also devised ways for the algorithm to be used in critical situations, providing a “robot crash cart” as a backup service. They brainstormed a set “choreography” that would help to ensure the right amount of people were present at the right time, with the “robot crash cart” making up for any shortages in staff. 
“Throughout our design process, we want to test our technology with nurses to ensure their needs are being met when they work alongside our robots, as well as use robots as a means of speaking up for nurses in situations that make them uncomfortable or when doctors/physicians do not take their concerns seriously,” said Taylor.

“These situations lead to patient safety risks, which can lead to patient deaths.”

Robotic Ventures into Factories and Education

An avenue of social assistance Lee has already scoped out, but wants to investigate further, is the factory work environment. Lee visited a factory that was already using a robot to carry out certain duties as a “water spider.” These duties included carrying packages and making sure materials arrived where they needed to be. The issue Lee found was the removal of jobs from older workers who previously worked as water spiders to make room for this robotic innovation. 

Lee aims to educate workers who know little about the robot and its capabilities, while coming up with a solution to use the robot without interfering with the current factory workflow. She is also interested in creating an educational program that teaches youth about AI, with a focus on what people most want to learn about the advanced technology. A successful program could then lead to the creation of another program involving industry leaders.

Lee plans to continue researching robotics, as it relates to how machines can fit into human spaces to better human society.

By John Castro

Glimpse into Media and Information