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Robotic Guide Dogs

If you’ve ever watched a documentary about how guide dogs are trained, you’ll know it’s the doggy equivalent of joining the Marines but with plenty of belly rubs, treats and “who’s a good boy...”

Potential guide dogs undergo a temperament assessment before joining a 20-week STEP training programme (Standardised Training for Excellent Partnerships). Using positive reinforcement techniques, the dogs are taught to ignore distractions and avoid obstacles, all the while developing into trusted companions for their new owners.

A cartoon image of a yellow and black robotic dog.

Not all dogs make the cut. A Labrador with a penchant for chasing squirrels would be a liability, after all. When lives are at stake, it’s imperative that the dogs are impeccably behaved no matter what the circumstances.

But what if a blind or partially sighted person didn’t want a dog? Perhaps due to allergies, accommodation size or a negative experience in the past. Whilst there are alternative aids available, there’s one on the horizon that feels straight out of the pages of a science-fiction novel: a robot.

In August 2020, the Leicester Mercury published an article detailing how a student from Loughborough University has created an autonomous device to guide visually impaired people who don’t have a guide dog. Named “Theia” and inspired by virtual reality gaming consoles, the way-finding device was created by final year Industrial Design & Technology student Anthony Camu. It seeks to replicate the functions performed by a guide dog, minus the shedding, slobber and snoring.

Camu told the paper:

"The goal of many non-sighted people is to be independent and live a normal life but unfortunately, many who endure vision loss feel excluded from situations and activities which many people take for granted….

"Theia has the capacity to expand a blind person's comfort zones and possibilities, broaden their horizons and allow them to think less about walking and more about what’s waiting for them at the end of the route."

So, how does it work?

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that on reading the term “robotic guide dog” I was expecting something like Poo-Chi, one of the first generations of robopet toys, manufactured by Sega Toys some twenty years ago.

Instead, Theia is a simple-looking handheld device with no wagging tail in sight. Using voice command and real-time data that is available online (such as traffic density and weather reports), the device is intended to guide users accurately and safely to their destination.

The article elaborates:

“It will also assist with tackling specific interactions such as elevators, stairs, entrances, shops, and pedestrian crossings, as well as other obstacles.

“Theia will communicate complex walking manoeuvres and actually move users' hands in open space using 'force feedback' — technology used in satellites and space vehicles, including the international space station.”

This “leading” sensation — achieved with control moment gyroscope (CMG) technology — is comparable to holding a guide dog’s brace, allowing users to feel the subtleties of speed, direction and vibration as they are pulled forward. Camu expects those with visual impairments could match, or even surpass, the pace of an average pedestrian by using the device.

Currently, the project is still in the prototype phase but Camu is considering launching a start-up company and crowdfunding campaign in the future.

Whether the dream for Theia is ever fully realised remains to be seen, but it is inspirational work nonetheless. It is estimated that there are around 36 million blind people in the world, with a further 216 million living with moderate to severe visual impairments. If Camu’s innovation can one day help even 0.001% enjoy a life with fewer boundaries, that would be an amazing achievement.

A cartoon image of a person and a dog in a park setting. They are surrounded by pink foliage, with a light blue sky above.

If you prefer your robots with four legs, however, the US-built “Astro” may be more to your liking... Featuring a 3D-printed head (designed to resemble a Doberman pinscher), Astro looks like something from a nightmare. But he is clever. Designed by scientists from Florida Atlantic University, Astro relies on deep learning and artificial intelligence to engage and react to his surroundings in real time.

Thanks to built-in sensors, radar imaging, cameras and a directional microphone, Astro can also respond to all the usual doggy commands like “sit”, “stand” and “lie down”.

An article from Cool Blind Tech delves further into Astro’s uses:

“Eventually, researchers hope Astro will be able to understand hand signals, detect different colors, comprehend various languages, coordinate with drones, distinguish human faces, and recognize other dogs…

“As an information scout, Astro can assist police, the military, and security personnel in sniffing out guns and explosives. As if that weren’t impressive enough, the robotic dog may be programmed to work as a service dog for the blind or visually impaired or provide medical diagnostic monitoring for those who need it.”

A quick glance through the YouTube comments on Florida Atlantic University’s accompanying video shows that I’m far from alone in my unease.

User LLGoldstein wrote:

“Honestly, has no one in this company watched Black Mirror episodes?... Someone needs to invent plasma beam weapons or EMP weapons so we can put down the Robopocalypse when it comes.”

Delta added: “Scariest looking thing ever.”

Whilst David Webb lamented:

“Like all scientists that create horrors from the atomic bomb designers to the morons that thought up killer drones they are very clever in their field but lack any appreciation of what effect these things will have on people and the world in general. It is a great pity they lack the ability to think outside their narrow role, the world would be a safer place if they could.”

The point is, Astro doesn’t look like a friendly robot companion to help visually impaired folk cross the road safely. He looks like a lean, mean, killing machine, with eyes that know no fear and metal legs that replicate the sound of impending doom. Who would even want one?!

Sid from Toy Story, that’s who! I’m sure Astro would fit in nicely with his other mutant playthings: Ducky, Hand-in-the-Box, RollerBob and, of course, the scariest-looking of all — Babyface.

Hopefully, we can look forward to a world that’s a little more Theia and a lot less Astro. But there are significant blockers to success.

The obvious one is the reliance on technology. Battery devices, by nature, lose power. What if a user runs out of power in an unfamiliar location? And is the device affected by inclement weather such as rain or extreme temperatures? What if there is no internet connection? Or a user encountered particularly rough, uneven terrain? Is the device sophisticated enough to navigate the user safely?

The other main issue is cost. Whilst devices may, in time, be cheaper than the breeding, training and support of a guide dog (estimated to cost around £63,000), the expense could still prove prohibitive. Who knows, perhaps charities will be asking the public to sponsor a Robotic Guide Dog in the not-too-distant future. But please God, no “pupdates” from Astro… I’ve seen enough of him for one lifetime.


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