October 25, 2004 6:54 AM PDT

Robot promoters look to Social Security set

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--The next major advance in personal robotics is aimed straight at the "Matlock" generation.

Robots for the elderly were one of the hot topics at the RoboNexus conference here on Saturday, as robot advocates and start-up companies consider new frontiers for robots in the home.

The Roomba vacuum cleaner has shown there's a market for smart machines performing household tasks. But the next generation of domestic helper machines will be far more capable, handling tasks ranging from cooking dinner to cleaning the litter box, predicted robotics consultant and author Joanne Pransky.

"In 25 years, I don't think we'll have to do any of the household chores unless we want to," she said. "If you cook, it'll be a hobby, not something you have to do."

Such robotic assistance would be especially helpful for elderly people with diminishing physical skills, Pransky said, allowing them to live independently longer.

That's precisely the pitch made by PALS Robotics, a Canadian start-up launched by robotics pioneer Joseph Engelberger to develop robots specialized for elder care. The company hopes to have 100 beta units at work in the next three to four years.

A well-designed, voice-activated elderbot would handle tasks such as putting away the groceries, helping the owner out of the bathtub and preparing meals. Such a robotic assistant would delay the need to move the senior into a skilled nursing facility and offer a cost-effective alternative to in-home nursing care, said company President Andrew Silverthorne, who anticipates significant Medicare support once the company has robots to send out into the field.

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