Report To the Multiple Sclerosis Trust On Spritely Mobile Robot

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We have been commissioned by your organisation to assess the benefits of spritely, the mobile robot developed jointly by the Opus Foundation and the Open University to help people with disabilities maintain their independence and self determination.


The increasing advances in technology since the 1970’s have seen the introduction of robots primarily within industry to aid production, improving quality and adopting some of the more hazardous roles previously assigned to unskilled personnel within industry.

The same robot technology used in industry is beginning to permeate through to domestic life with the forecast for 2000 – 2003 estimated to be 40,000 units deployed throughout homes internationally performing such tasks as vacuuming, lawn mowing and other domestic chores.

Further development within this field is also evaluating the uses of robots for the disabled, intelligent devices, which articulate the brain of a disabled person, permitting them to interact with society and maintain a level of independence.

In reviewing this growth area of technology and its uses for the disabled a number of factors have to be considered which are important, if integration with the disabled community is to be achieved successfully.

Communication between the disabled and society can be difficult let alone that with a robot, it is therefore important that the right level of interface is established between the two enabling ease of use and responsiveness to commands. All technological applications require testing to ensure it operates to the manufacturers guidelines, with robots integrating with humans this has to be more rigorous to ensure that harm is not inflicted on the recipient. therefore, safety is another issue. Another technical issue that needs to be further investigated is capacity and cost, as this will have a bearing on the take up of the robot.

Introduction of robots into the home will bring about dependency on their ability to take on daily chores for the disabled, therefore reliability in use is a key factor which will determine not only continued use but also instil confidence in their user.

Not all areas of society will be able to afford this technology and therefore funding issues will need to be reviewed along with access and inequality between those who are successful in gaining the assistance of robots and those who are unfortunate not to gain assistance. Finally, we have to look at robotic technology standards and the compatibility of the robot to both the individual and their home environment.

This report sets out to examine these areas, which we believe are fundamental to the adoption and integration within the disabled community.

Individual Report

According to a study in Personal Management By Birkett 1988, there have been estimates that as many as 10% of the population may suffer from some form of long term serious physical or mental disability (1).

The term disabled is a very diverse term as it describes a group that is not homogeneous; it can include various physical and mental disabilities. Different disabilities require different needs so the design and implementation must comply with all categories of disability or many will not have access to the new technologies.

At the present time there are four main groups of disability which are visual, physical, hearing and mental, for all to have equality in the use of new technologies the robot must be able to recognise different commands from different users.

New technologies can be used to give the physically disabled access to a more independent lifestyle, it would allow them more freedom and would try to compensate for the inequality that people with physical impairments face day to day. Physical and mental disabilities are minimised by the use of artificial and robotic aids. These facilitate the integration of the disabled individuals into society.

Access for the disabled to telecommunications and information technologies, including the design principles are not made widely available to the disabled for them to gain the same equality as the able bodied people of society.

With the convergence of Information Technology developments everything is now computerized giving the disabled community decreased access to spoken and written information.

Spritely has enough artificial intelligence and processing power to enable various commands to be processed by the robot, but it only has a stored repertoire of 100 sounds, which will only recognise the minimum commands from the user. The robot has to be in a designated area for computerized input devices to allow it to obey the command the user specifies. If the user cannot speak at all what access will they have? Will there be a touch pad screen to allow for communication? or would this become a lot more expensive, therefore less access and more inequality.

How will the disabled user be trained on the correct use of the robot and its user interface? To access training programmes there may be a charge, how much would this be in addition to the cost of hardware and software? What access to these programmes would the disabled have?

Regarding the cognitive skills of the disabled user, some people adapt to new technologies and can learn better than others. What access would the mentally disabled have to training programmes?

Many current designs assume that everyone has full upper limb mobility, even with all the improvements there is still a question whether current designs have excluded physically disabled.

The disabled are usually excluded from technologies, but the present and future technologies enable the physically disabled more power putting them equal to the able bodied people of society.

More government agencies and support organisations should allow more financial support for the physically disabled to live in a society with everyday routines and promote the use of Information Technology in rehabilitating the disabled back into society.

This factor is not only important for the physically disabled user but also for the manufacturers who produce new technologies, they can only produce these products when there is a market demand that will encourage them to enter into mass production.

As it stands at the moment the cost of Spritely is �15,000 although with mass production and with the help of government agencies this cost may decrease, it would have to decrease dramatically to allow access to many of the physically disabled, this is one of the biggest factors for the inequality in technologies is the funding principle and the affordability for the disadvantaged, some savings may be met by reducing the costs caring for the disabled person.

Other European countries have organisations that provide services and implementation of equipment for disabled people under government funding. These organisations look at the individual needs and not the needs of a group or organisation allowing the physically disabled more access and equality.

Organisations in the UK are trying to follow the guidelines of other geographical locations to enable a more constructive life for the disabled as other countries are doing.

There has been extensive research, which has led to major improvements to the functional capacities of individuals with sensory, mobility, manipulation and cognitive impairments.

From the convergence of the industrial robot to the artificial intelligent robot it has allowed disabled people possibilities to work in their own structured environment. The robot becoming a humanoid servant can allow the user to command the robot to perform the minimum of duties such as stack parcels, turn the pages of a book, change CD-ROMS and fetch a cup of coffee.

For the development of Spritely culture relevance for the diversity of ethnic and geographical populations had to be taken into account to allow for equality. Was the robot ever tested with populations that would be living in locations that were not economically viable?

One of the methods used for research and to evaluate Spritely would be virtual reality, which is an advanced form of computer simulation in which the user has the illusion of being part of an artificial environment. The artificial structured environment would include public and private buildings, tools and objects of daily use, roads and cars, anything that can be accessed being built into a model, researched and tested.

Multimedia technology can be used to improve access to technologies and communication for the physically disabled. It combines text, graphics, photographs, audio and video into a single user environment that can be tailored to the needs of the different disability.

Access to the unstructured environments such as the home and the office still remain a critical need for people with disabilities.

In the home the programming of the robot is very difficult to evaluate as every person is different and the disabled have different needs. Daily Routines such as getting dressed, meal preparation, feeding, medical assistance, personal hygiene etc, involve direct interaction between the robot and the user, more extensive research and testing needs to be carried out and all people should be assured that all standards have been adhered to.

With Spritely sharing this unstructured space of the home it did initially present problems, the ultimate ambition was to create a robot that could wander anywhere and perform 100’s of tasks. This problem has tried to be resolved by using the commands that can be programmed as in the plan of a room, allocating space to people and space to the robot.

Would the disabled user go though a rehabilitation plan that would aid the user to use the robot correctly and independently? Controlling a robot is a very complicated process, it is important to have a simple user interface for controlling the robot to allow much more accessibility for a disabled group.

Since 1944, the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act has meant that if a company has a workforce of 20 or more employees, it should aim to have a quota of at least 3% being disabled (2).

By carefully analysing the requirements and needs of the employers and by introducing new technologies it has led to re-employment of some of the physically disabled, but to what occupations, there would be limited access to many professions because of physical and mental disabilities.

For those of the disabled that are socially isolated, new technologies can allow for more integration with society and many fields of employment may be made available.

Teleworking from home is a viable proposition for the disabled, but it can also be seen as another case where technology re-enforces existing inequalities.

Working in a teleworking home environment may seem as if the disabled have control over their work environment and can adapt their home to suit their working needs, also the disabled with mobility impairments, access to and from a workplace can be a problem. Travelling would be minimised by teleworking. Working as a teleworker the disability would be invisible, but it also makes the disabled person themselves literally invisible as they are isolated even more from society. Isolation is a major disadvantage in teleworking along with exploitation, lack of training and reducing the ability to climb the promotional ladder.

In the BT (1992) paper Disability and Teleworking, Noel Howell BIFU spokesman stated, that he is concerned that employers will see teleworking as a cheap solution to meeting government quotas for disabled employment. (3)

‘A cynical attempt by employers to conform with the letter of their statutory obligations to employ a quota of people with disabilities without incurring the expense of making adaptions to the workplace.’ (4)

There must be some forms of adaptation required in the workplace and the home to make IT accessible to the disabled. This has also brought about questions about the specifications of Spritely. The first question is how is the robot programmed and can this programming be reduced to a level of competence of the average user? Can the robot be programmed to perform actions that are useful for the user? What degree of independence does the robot offer the user and how does one set about defining the needs of the disabled user?

For a physically disabled person to achieve and maintain maximum physical function, to live in their own homes, to study and learn, to attain gainful employment, and to participate in and contribute to society in meaningful and resourceful ways the adoption of new technologies can only be seen as a step in the right direction, but I doubt the robot Spritely could provide the access for the disabled to expel inequality between the physically disabled and the able bodied.


Following extensive research covering both available reference material and the Internet, we have come to the following conclusions.

The robot would need to be flexible, adjustable and upgradeable in order to be adapted for the individual and their changing needs. It is vital to establish good interaction between the user and system and this may require adjustments to the input and output devices employed on Spritely.

One area of the report we would like to contest would be the premise of the home being a “structured environment”. Programming Spritely to work within the existing environment would be much better for the user.

We are also concerned by the validity of the information quoted in the Spritely article. No specifications are quoted, no technical information given and no indication of the capacity of Spritely’s integrated circuits. Existing IT knowledge required and quality of training is not covered. The article does not address issues such as compatibility with other devices, meeting British Safety Standards and redressing guidance system problems.

No test results were given, and these could be an indicator to Spritely’s success. Testing to ensure reliability and safety is essential, covering both differing levels of ability and in different environments. Releasing a robot without testing is not only pointless, but highly dangerous. Without good, rigorous testing, Spritely is doomed to failure.

Rehabilitation technology can provide significant help to the disabled user by giving them greater independence and self-determination. This in turn can lead to the individual becoming more integrated within society, with greater access to services. In this way a rehabilitation robot could address a number of inequality issues and be of great benefit to the user. With life expectancy constantly extending we may not be able to provide sufficient care to those suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, this will also have a bearing on the appropriation of government and local authority funding.

Domestic Robots offer a supportive alternative to some of our future community needs, providing round the clock assistance where necessary. However, our research leads us to believe that there is insufficient evidence that Spritely is the answer. One option you might like to consider would be to lease Spritely on a fixed term, fixed fee basis with the option to upgrade when enhancements are made.

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