Life with Brian

Life with Brian

A growing boomer population sparks the development of helpful robots
June 24, 2013

Canada’s aging baby boomers are normally the preoccupation of health professionals, not engineers. But University of Toronto mechanical engineer Goldie Nejat knows this population’s statistics as well as any health planner.

“About 20 percent of the population will be over the age of 65 by 2030,” says Nejat. “I really worry about that, about our quality of life. As we get older, it changes.”

In particular, she worries about seniors’ ability to perform daily tasks, such as bathing, eating proper meals and taking medications. So Nejat is designing robots to help with these tasks and to act as social companions that can stimulate seniors’ minds and stave off cognitive decline.

Ever want to play cards with a robot? The opportunity might not be as far away as you think. Goldie Nejat and her team of researchers at the University of Toronto’s Autonomous Systems and Biomechatronics Laboratory have developed an assistive robot named Brian. He is designed to interact with the elderly to engage them in stimulating games, remind them to take their medications and more. The video (ABOVE) shows Brian playing Concentration with a friend, giving hints when needed and providing encouragement.
Video credit: Autonomous Systems and Biomechatronics Lab/
University of Toronto

Nejat has spent the past two years testing her prototype robot “Brian” with more than 100 long-term-care home residents in Toronto to see whether he can successfully prompt those with cognitive problems to eat balanced meals. She is also testing his ability to engage residents in memory card games such as Concentration. Once testing is complete, Nejat plans to commercialize her robotic technologies. She and her team are currently working with several Canadian robotics companies to incorporate their technologies into the companies’ lines of robots to enter the assistive-robotics market.

Brian, who speaks with a computerized man’s voice, consists of a mechanical torso, arms and head. His face is made of silicone rubber, which expresses emotion via a series of actuators that move the silicone. He smiles when happy and shows a frown and droopy eyes when sad. Surprise comes with raised eyebrows, and stern is expressed with lowered eyebrows.

While Brian is clearly a robot, he usually sports a T-shirt and ball cap to mask some of his mechanics. Sensors under his shirt are trained on the person with whom he is interacting.

Brian can sense when you’ve turned away, which he interprets as distraction. He then gently tries to recapture your attention with a word or two. “Try the applesauce,” he might say. “It’s delicious.”

His sensors also pick up how you move your arms. If you spoon your applesauce onto the floor, for instance, Brian knows. He may then say that what you did makes him sad and show you his sad face.

Brian’s verbal repertoire even includes jokes: “Why did the cookie go to the doctor? Because he felt crummy!”

“Yeah, I know it’s corny,” admits Nejat. “But people actually laugh.”


Robot Brian (ABOVE) can read facial expressions and react properly to them. If, while playing Concentration, he sees signs of frustration or confusion on an elderly person’s face, he offers encouragement. Canada’s growing population of baby boomers is putting more strain on our health-care system and on families. Assistive robots such as Brian can help reduce this burden and enable the elderly to stay independent longer.
Photo credit: Autonomous Systems and Biomechatronics Lab/
University of Toronto

Brian’s software is designed so that he can gauge an individual’s capabilities and adjust his reactions accordingly. For example, in a game of Concentration with someone who is sometimes able to remember the location of specific cards, he may merely point in the direction of a match. Playing opposite someone with memory problems, he may point to a specific card.

“The object is not for Brian to win but for him to stimulate his opponent’s brain,” explains Nejat. Brian even celebrates your win with you, raising his arms and cheering.

Nejat developed Brian’s “intelligence” and bought his sensors and actuators with funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). She has also used CFI funding to begin building a second robot — one that can move from one individual to another, interacting with several people at once.

While Brian has been successful in engaging long-term-care home residents, Nejat knows that not everyone will accept a robot helper.

North Americans are not as comfortable with robots as are the Japanese, for instance. “Their culture embraces machines,” says Nejat. “The Japanese government has spent a lot of money designing robots for service tasks.”

Still, Nejat predicts that as it becomes clear that such a large group of seniors needs help, North Americans will be more accepting.

“We need to relieve the workload of health-care professionals,” says Nejat. “A robot doesn’t get tired of doing the same thing over and over. And it can keep a smile on its face all day.”