Robots and the Cloud Help Homebound Kids Attend School

By Maja Tarateta, Fox Business

Robots are interacting with patients in medical facilities, handling material in warehouses, working in manufacturing, and helping ill children attend school—all with a hand from the Cloud.

Indeed, by linking to the Cloud, robots are bringing homebound students into classrooms, hallways and cafeterias to socialize with their friends and continue learning—in school.

“When you allow the student to actually be there, move around, go to classes and go to recess, you return a sense of control,” said Daniel Theobald, chief innovation officer and co-founder of Vecna, a Massachusetts-based company that has created the VGo Robotic Telepresence.

The VGo robot is essentially a virtual student who is present in the classroom and interacts in all the usual ways, even able to raise a hand (so to speak) to respond to questions in real time. But its creators hope you won’t think of it as just a fancy Skype or FaceTime.

The telepresence platform allows for “unilateral connection,” said Theobald. “All enabled by the fact that the robot is connected to the Cloud and able to access maps and data.”

Whereas FaceTime or Skype require a recipient to accept the connection, VGo allows the person on the remote end to simply “show up.” Not just two-way audio or video, the student can also drive the robot around the school and perform tasks, enhancing education and alleviating a student’s sense of isolation.

“Machine learning, big data and the Cloud allow for robots to do more things that are more challenging and more human-like,” said Fred Heger, senior research scientist at Vecna, who is working on areas like robotic cooperation—how robots interact with other robots and with humans.

“Training a robot that an object needs to be picked up uses machine-learning techniques. A neural network takes a lot of data. One robot can take years to gather enough data to robustly learn,” explained Heger. “But pool robots and share experiences among hundreds of thousands of robots, and they are able to learn faster. A shared connection to the Cloud is key for robotics.”

The Vecna robots are used not only in schools but healthcare facilities and industrial workplaces.

“There is a big push right now to make America competitive,” said Theobald. “These technologies allow organizations to compete effectively in the global market.” The idea, he said, is to teach robots to do jobs efficiently and safely that humans don’t aspire to do, and also to work alongside humans, as colleagues rather than replacements.

“What our robots provide is a disruption by not being disruptive,” said Heger. “What robots can do is safely and cleanly interact with people in the same environment.”

“The disruption comes in building robots designed to work alongside human beings,” agreed Theobald. “To integrate the idea of robots as co-workers” who operate reliably around humans.

Much of this comes from what the robots are able to learn in the Cloud.

“People want robots to be predictable and not do things that are weird,” said Theobald. “Robots have to learn predictable social norms. A robot interacting with untrained people really needs to interact in an intuitive, friendly way. The interaction may just be passing in the hallway. The human-robot interaction has really benefited from the Cloud and allowing robots to share their experiences and learn from each other.”

“The Cloud,” said Heger, “lets us link a lot of capable machines into a very useful system.”

But the line between human and robot needs to be clear.

“If people are trying to make robots that look like humans, it’s harder for people to accept,” said Theobald. “We’ve found that it’s better to have robots be clearly robots and not have them look like humans. Humans want to be human. If robots are cute and look good, they seem safe.”

Said Heger, the robot has to “look like something that belongs in its environment.”

For example, a robot working in a healthcare environment needs to look “trustworthy but not scary, but not so cute that people question its ability to do real work,” said Amanda Baldi, Vecna director of marketing.

The robot’s ability to interact effectively with humans is all tied to the Cloud, from which it can ask questions and get answers. “The Cloud makes robots possible and [helps them] achieve ever-increasing levels of autonomy previously considered impossible,” said Theobald.

“The reality is that robots are going to change everything,” he said. “Much like the Internet.”