For being a provocative alternative in senior healthcare

Meet GATSBII. He’s a sturdy fellow who weighs about 450 pounds and stands at four foot four—unless he needs to reach something and extends to five foot five. He looks just like the classic robot of your imagination: a broad, rolling base that contains two operating computers; arms with clawlike pincers; a laser scanner that hums up and down; and a row of cameras and an Xbox Kinect atop his head. (Yes, we know you shouldn’t use personal pronouns for a robot, but who can resist? Just look at him.)

GATSBIIGATSBII—which stands for “GATech Service Bot with Interactive Intelligence” and is pronounced like the Fitzgerald hero—currently has the intellect of an infant, although unlike a baby, he comes with an on/off switch. But he’s learning fast. He resides in the Aware Home at Georgia Tech, an ultrawired facility where he practices chores like picking up a bar of soap and dropping it into a bin. With an aging population that will need healthcare and other assistance, and a scarcity of trained younger humans, robots like GATSBII are seen as a smart solution to a labor shortage. While there are robot tests being conducted elsewhere, the Tech experiment uniquely fuses robotics and psychology and already has established one important fact: Older people aren’t creeped out by the prospect of having robot helpers.

In a Tech focus group, older adults said they’d prefer a robot over a human to help them pick up things they drop, hand them medication, empty the dishwasher, and perform other tasks. The seniors met and interacted with GATSBII, and they liked him. “They did not seem intimidated by it at all, which was quite exciting,” says Wendy Rogers, professor of psychology and director of Tech’s Human Factors and Aging Laboratory.

Today a robot like GATSBII costs about $400,000. But like all new technologies, robots will get cheaper when commercialized. Rogers and her colleagues will work with assisted-living facilities in Atlanta to test robot use. She foresees robots doing more exerting and less pleasant tasks (cleaning, sponge bathing), allowing human caregivers to socialize with residents, and says, “I could envision Atlanta being one of the early adopters of this technology.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.