Need Or Want Help Eating? Well, Train Your Robot To Feed You (Than)


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RetinaNet, an object-detection algorithm, scans your plate, identifies the sorts of food on it and positions a frame around each item.

University of Washington researchers are developing a robotic system that can make eating easier. After distinguishing various foods on a plate, the robot can devise how to use a spoon/fork to pick up and hand over the craved bite to an individual’s mouth.

“Being dependent on a caregiver to feed every bite every day takes away a person’s sense of independence,” stated accompanying author Siddhartha Srinivasa, the UW Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering’s Boeing Endowed Professor. “Our goal with this project is to give people a bit more control over their lives.”

The idea was to produce a self-directed feeding system that would be affixed to wheelchairs and feed persons whatever they desired to eat. “When we started the project we realized: There are so many ways that people can eat a piece of food depending on its size, shape or consistency. How do we start?” explained co-author Tapomayukh Bhattacharjee, an Allen School postdoctoral research associate. “So we set up an experiment to see how humans eat common foods like grapes and carrots.

“People seemed to use different strategies not just based on the size and shape of the food but also how hard or soft it is. But do we actually need to do that? We decided to do an experiment with the robot where we had it skewer food until the fork reached a certain depth inside, regardless of the type of food.

“You can pick up a carrot stick by skewering it in the center of the stick, but it will be difficult for a person to eat. On the other hand, if you pick it up on one of the ends and then tilt the carrot toward someone’s mouth, it’s easier to take a bite.”

Srinivasa furthered: “Many engineering challenges are not picky about their solutions, but this research is very intimately connected with people. If we don’t take into account how easy it is for a person to take a bite, then people might not be able to use our system. There’s a universe of types of food out there, so our biggest challenge is to develop strategies that can deal with all of them. Ultimately our goal is for our robot to help people have their lunch or dinner on their own. But the point is not to replace caregivers: We want to empower them. With a robot to help, the caregiver can set up the plate, and then do something else while the person eats.”

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Aaron Granger

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