Zhi Zheng’s robot is skilled at Tai Chi, and her research team hopes to soon lead a class of elderly people at a local community center. Her robot is more than just a cute companion. It can help improve cognitive function and provide insights into how people interact with robots in various settings.
Zheng, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at RIT’s Kate Gleason School of Engineering, has developed an advanced human-like robot as part of her assistive technology research.
With expertise in developing robots and virtual reality systems, Zheng’s work explores human and machine intelligence. She is part of a larger multidisciplinary team at RIT that is using artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics to design assistive technologies that can impact mental health care.
“My main research direction is for individuals with developmental disorders. Many of the core technologies are transferable to other populations such as older adults with mild cognitive impairment,” said Zeng, head of the Intelligent Interaction Research Lab. The lab focuses on several technology-funded initiatives including healthcare for seniors with multiple chronic conditions and interventions for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The leader of Tai Chi is a NAO robot, and although it is only two feet long, it is a highly advanced system that can be programmed with specific functions and tasks.
“We don’t have to build our own robots because there are good commercial platforms available. Their behavior depends only on how we design the control software. A central part of our research is how to control robots to do cognitive things correctly,” Cheng said. Really how he behaves outside the box. We teach it how it works.”
Teaching her tai chi was one of those jobs.
Tai Chi is a popular mind and body exercise, and consists of tailored movements, meditation, and proper breathing. Different movements require the practitioner to rely on many cognitive functions such as working memory and visual-spatial processing to memorize engraved gestures. Movement stimulates blood flow through the brain, and for older adults, this has been shown to be beneficial for longevity, memory, and learning.
The use of robots as facilitators is a growing area of research, and Zheng has seen a transition from laboratory-based work to community-based field studies.
“There’s a big difference,” she said. “Everything in the lab is controlled and people can be nervous and alert. It doesn’t really reflect their natural reactions.” “Now the field is trying to understand and study what if we moved the technology from an engineering building to a community center, for example? People are comfortable, and their reactions will be more natural with the new technology. The technology should be easily controlled by someone who is not an expert — related to the design of our interface. We want it to be Our bot is run by a community leader or social worker — because technology is designed to serve people. It has to fit into society.”
Some work on the site was temporarily halted during the pandemic, but has since resumed with Zheng led by a research team including Victor Perotti, a professor at Saunders School of Business; Yong Tae Wang, Dean of the College of Health Sciences and Technology; Peter Bagorsky, Professor of Statistics in the College of Science.
Wang has more than 20 years of experience teaching and practicing tai chi, and Bajorski previously worked with Zeng on a separate Department of Health and Human Services grant to measure aspects of autism spectrum disorder. Besides research in the field of theory of mind — the study of human-robot interactions and the effectiveness of using robots as facilitators of research — the team brings together psychology, people-to-people communications, and applications built on human-centered artificial intelligence, one of RIT’s key research areas.
“I consider myself a user and creator of AI because I design my own system frameworks, my own algorithms. These are more racist on the AI spectrum,” she said. “I also look forward to the work of others to add to my research. I stand on the shoulders of giants!”
Humanoid robots may be seen as having states of mind
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