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Physically Assistive Robots

As described in the other chapters of this book, robots that provide physical assistance place the human operator at the center of the process. The goal is to enhance the ability to manipulate objects and to function independently. This relationship between robot and person raises ethical questions.

Robots can operate at different levels of autonomy with respect to the control exerted by the user. At one extreme, the robot can accept high- level commands that define a task to be completed (e.g., take a glass from the shelf, fill it with water, and bring it to the user). The robot will perform whatever subtasks are necessary and make necessary decisions (e.g., determine if the glass is full) without requesting any human intervention. This is referred to as being fully autonomous. Alternatively, the user can have direct control over the robot movements at each step in the task. This is referred to as teleoperation.

Between these two extremes of autonomy (autonomous and teleoperated robot), several levels of autonomy can be defined (see Chapter 2)

(Parasuraman, Sheridan, and Wickens 2000). Assistive robots are often employed at a midrange of autonomy, in which the user merely needs to hit or press and hold a switch to replay a prestored movement.

Rather than just compensating for lost function, ATs should contribute to growth and independence for persons with disabilities and the elderly. The potential benefits of technologies such as robotics must be balanced with the ethical concerns of autonomy and privacy (Remmers 2010). Fundamental to self-determination is enlisting the help of others as needed. Independence means having the opportunity to make a choice of how and when daily functions such as taking a shower, bathing, dressing and undressing, using the toilet, and eating are carried out as well as completing activities such as shopping, cleaning, preparing meals, or taking care of financial affairs.

 
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