Personal Social Assistive Robot as imagined by Abracadabra Robotics.
Personal Social Assistive Robot as imagined by Abracadabra Robotics: Not so cute you won't heed it. Photo by Abracadabra Robotics
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Abracadabra Robotics
Marina Fridin, left, and Natasha Shchukin, founders of the Abracadabra Robotics software company. Photo by Abracadabra Robotics

"I see you woke up 20 minutes ago and haven't gotten out of bed," the robot nudges as you lie in bed, recovering from stroke. "Your daughter texted, asking that you get dressed. Let's take your picture and text it to her. Then let's make something to eat," it coaxes, or will in about two and a half years' time.

Abracadabra Robotics, founded earlier this year by two Israeli Russian women, plans to start testing its Personal Social Assistive Robots at Tel Hashomer Hospital in six months. Starting with robots to help stroke victims, later they hope to make other helpful artificial beings.

Natasha Shchukin, CEO, describes her co-founder, Marina Fridin, as a "robots psychologist" and expert on writing algorithms that describe human behavior.

Stroke survivors may suffer from a host of difficulties, from language and movement impairment to personality changes. Very often help is needed in their rehabilitation process.

It would be great if a physiotherapist could come and stay all day, but that's prohibitively expensive – running at about $150 per hour in the United States.

This is where Abracadabra's robots will come in, the company hopes. It plans to lease them for $500 a month, which in Israel about the cost of just 12 hours of physical therapy (as much as the state will finance), or to sell them for about $5,500. Added perk: the robot stays all day, and all night, without losing patience.

Time to make coffee

The robot won't bring the patient's pills but facilitates recovery by encouraging the patient to do basics: put on a shirt, make coffee. It also helps direct physiotherapy, based on instructions from by the therapist.

The robot demonstrates the moves and monitors the patient's progress, giving encouragement, feedback and correction as needed. Pertinent objects in the home, for instance weights to be lifted during exercises, are marked with RFID tags, enabling the robot to track their use.

The robot has a camera in order to help it orient itself in the home and make sure it's trying to help the right person, not the dog or umbrella stand. It moves about on Segway-type wheels (and no, it can't climb stairs).

The robot is being designed for patients whose impairment is confined to the upper body. They must be able to sit comfortably, Shchukin says, in order to see the robot – and its hands – clearly. In the case of cognitive impairment, the patient must have minimal ability to communicate with the robot: to understand the meaning of the interactive situation and the robot’s speech, and react adequately.

The robot sends feedback data, on the patient's mood, cognitive state or physical condition, to caretakers, who may decide on changes to the patient's regimen.

Ooh, cutie robot told me to eat. I won't

Work Fridin has done in the past with child victims of stroke showed that robots can do at least some of the jobs as well as human physiotherapists, speech therapists or other carers do.

There's a snag, though. Humanoid robots – especially ones designed to look like cute human children - fail to command respect among adults, she says. They don't recognize its authority.

Take the trial by Maccabi using NAOs – adorable humanoid robots that can dance and sing and even play soccer but don't convey that "Obey me or else" sense. Maccabi bought three of them from the French company Aldebaran Robotics at 8,000 euros a pop (not much for a programmable robot) to help treat elderly people with pulmonary disease, says Fridin.

Their job involved monitoring the patients' coughing and they were programmed to know when to call for medical assistance. The robots also brought medicines – they could carry a bottle of drugs, scan the barcode and know what to administer; and they could hold basic conversations. But the pilot didn't go well because the robots were too charming, claim the Abracadabra founders.

The Abracadabra robot's design is still in progress. It will be humanoid, 120 centimeters tall and 50 cm wide, and not threatening - but it's not supposed to be baby-rabbit cute. It will be able to express faux emotion through a light display, the image on its "face" screen and gestures with its arms.

Abracadabra's thing is the algorithms and software, not the hardware. The company, which has five employees and has won support from the Israeli government, will be outsourcing construction of the robots. Following the pilot at Tel Hashomer, another round of testing is scheduled at the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in California.