NIN: Hey Ben, where are you from?
Benjamin: I'm from West Grove, Pennsylvania. It's thirty minutes south of Philly.
And the project that you've brought to Maker Faire NY is ALAIR?
Benjamin: Yes, ALAIR is an Assisted-Living Autonomous Internet Robot. The goal of it is to prolong the period between living independently and having to be in an assisted-living center, so it would be for someone who is physically capable, where they can shower and get to bed by themselves, but they have a declining mental state, where they forget to take their pills or helps with a chronic issue that needs to be monitored like asthma, diabetes, or tachycardia.
Yeah, and so what inspired you to even think about this in the first place?
Benjamin: My Grandmom has tachycardia [racing heart beat] but before she knew she had a tachycardia, she was noticing that she had problems with her heart but she didn't want to tell anyone, 1) because she was afraid of losing that independence that she has, and 2) because she just didn't want to bother anyone.
She is a Polack, so she's stubborn and she eventually had to go to the hospital. She was rushed there. Her heart actually stopped and if she just would have told someone, it would have made things a lot easier.
After coming home from the hospital, she has a nurse that comes every single day just to take her pulse, ask her how she is, and then leave, and that seemed kind of silly to me just to come for thirty minutes and she also tells me how inconvenient it is because the nurse gives her like a four-hour window that she's going to come, four or five-hour window and she can't go anywhere in between that window. She has to sit there and wait for the nurse to come.
So that's what inspired me.
How long did it take you to develop the first version of ALAIR?
Benjamin: It's been about a year-and-a-half.
And did you already have the skills or did you learn them just for this purpose?
Benjamin: I think, on every project, you're learning skills, I had made a robot before this. It was just a tele-presence robot to keep the elderly company. It was based off of a Roomba [robot vacuum cleaner] and a trash can and I actually got to go the White House Science Fair for that. That was exciting.
Did you get to meet the President?
Benjamin: Yes, I did, there's a picture over there and it was a great experience. He liked what I was doing.
When you go to the White House Science Fair and there's people like President Obama, Bill Nye - the Science Guy and other notables, who was most exciting for you to meet?
Benjamin: Without a doubt, it was Bill Nye, the Science Guy. I have a video of me and him on the floor of the White House in our tuxes and we're looking at the robotic arm I made and he was explaining to me my robotic arm, and how the muscles and ligaments of a human arm works just like my robotic arm, how they counterbalance in order to keep it steady.
Very cool. When you came up with ALAIR, who was the first person you asked for feedback?
Benjamin: The first person I used it with was my Grandmom, and I had a lot of input from her about things like the slides for the sensors coming out too fast and the size of the buttons.
After I got that sort of input, I took it to the HUD Building. I thought HUD was the perfect place to test it, because the people there are required to be physically capable and they're expected to be mentally capable. Usually, it's after a HUD Building that they'll go to an assisted-living center.
They all want to be independent. Nobody wants to go to an assisted-living center, so they were all eager, even though they don't know how to use a computer, they were excited that this might be a solution to help them continue being independent.
So they have the motivation to try it.
How did their reaction make you feel?
Benjamin: It was awesome. I never expected them to be so inclined to robotics. When I did my first projects, like I said, it was a tele-presence robot and I tested that with the elderly and I expected a neutral opinion and I would have been ecstatic with a neutral opinion, because that means that they're okay with it.
On a scale of 1 to 10, I got an 8.3.
What stage is it at now?
Benjamin: It's at a prototype stage. The biggest thing in before it becomes a final product is just testing, because when you have a robot that's going to be interacting with the elderly, especially people who are not usually inclined to technology, if you even don't have the right menu up, they get worried.
So it's important that every single thing works exactly, especially when you have a robot, something that has the potential to injure someone. It has to work perfectly.
At the moment it looks pretty boxy, right? In order to gain wider acceptance for it, will you have to like dress it up like Celine Dion or Barbara Streisand?
Benjamin: Right now, it is really boxy. I used some material called Masonite because it was really easy to prototype it. I also wanted to make it a larger, rather than smaller product ... that way I have room inside to expand and try things. If I'd made the frame too small and then decided I wanted to add something later, that would have made things really difficult.
I'm trying not to make it look like a person because there's actually a lot of research about robots that look like humans scaring people, because it's just weird (laughs). I mean, it is kind of cool but a lot of people have problems with it.
The Uncanny Valley principle.
Benjamin: Uncanny Valley. Right.
One final, big picture, question - If there was anything on the planet that you could cure or solve, that is currently thought of as being impossible, what would it be?
Benjamin: Honestly, there's so many things, but one thing that really bothers me is how people view technology versus sports in our society, and I think that if more kids would give it a chance, then they could solve every single problem that there is - asteroids, cancer, whatever.
So more people should get interested in this and more parents should, instead of making their kids sign up for thirty sports teams from the time they are in kindergarten, try something like first robotics, get them involved, then they'd be able to solve all the problems.
Awesome, thanks man, that's great.