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At 90, The 'Father Of Robotics' Still Wants To Develop Mechanical Caregivers



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The afternoon following his 90th birthday celebration, Newtown resident and the acknowledged “Father of Robotics” Joseph F. Engelberger relaxed in his Hattertown home while his daughter Gay tended to his comfort by bringing a small glass of white wine.

While Mr Engelberger obviously appreciated the effort along with all the care he receives from his daughter and others, he would much rather see many day-to-day chores being performed on his behalf by a mechanical assistant.

“My big hope for robotics was to build one that would be personally useful,” Mr Engelberger said. “What would be interesting to me would be if you could hire a robot to live with an older person and be useful and be friendly. But I never got the funding to make that personal robot.

“It would be a wonderful thing, and it’s technically possible,” he continued. “It could fetch and carry, make meals, and clean.”

Gay Engleberger added that a robot, whether owned or rented, could even serve as a protector by being programmed to detect a fall or even a fire, and possibly be armed with its own extinguisher to intervene while at the same time making a 911 call for help.

“Dad’s eldercare robot would have a massive memory, so it would know where all the dishes were, how to load the dishwasher, who to call if assistance was needed, how to read bar codes on food packaging, and to prepare food,” Ms Engelberger said.

“What we were worried about was that elders would be too afraid of the technology. But when we surveyed seniors about it, they said that would be the best thing in the world,” she said. “He really wanted to have a robot — life-sized — working hand-in-hand with humans.”

Mr Engelberger launched the world’s first robotics company, Unimation, in 1956. And its first industrial robot, called Unimate, was installed in a General Motors plant in 1961, revolutionizing modern manufacturing processes.

Unimate even made an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1966, famously sinking a golf put much to Mr Carson’s and the audience’s amazement. Since Unimate was introduced, approximately three million industrial robots have been installed in manufacturing facilities around the world.

Unimation grew into a company with more than 1,000 employees before being acquired by Westinghouse in 1982 for $107 million. After the sale of Unimation, Mr Engelberger saw a whole new field for robotics — in health care and elder care.

In 1984 he formed HelpMate Robotics, initially called Transitions Research Corp, with a goal to give robots sensory capabilities to work with humans in service activities. Two of those HelpMate robots were introduced at Danbury Hospital, and were often seen traveling along hospital hallways, and in and out of elevators carrying pharmaceuticals and supplies.

“That was Roscoe and Rosie — we had a lot of fun having robots working alongside people,” Gay Engleberger recalled.

Up until that time, most industrial robots operated in fenced-off compounds because of their potential to harm humans with their powerful, fast moving but nonsensory appendages.

“All of a sudden, we had a robot who could get on elevators and talk to people. Obstacle avoidance was a big thing — if it came upon a little old lady, it would plot a path around her and be on its way,” she said. “We spent months in Danbury Hospital following them around testing theories and waiting to learn how people would react to it.

“The kids up in pediatrics would be ordering something they didn’t even like, just because they knew the robot would bring it.”

HelpMate was acquired by Cardinal Health in 1997.

A Nonagenarian Celebrated

As he hit 90, a number of his protégés and surviving associates either came to Newtown to help celebrate, or sent cards and messages offering best wishes.

“We wish our friend Joe Engelberger all the best for his milestone 90th birthday,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA). “Joe was instrumental in founding RIA over 40 years ago, bringing together early robotics leaders. We’re very thankful for his pioneering role and honor him every year by presenting the Joseph F. Engelberger award to individuals making outstanding contributions to the field of robotics.”

Since the award’s inception in 1977, it has been presented to 116 robotics leaders from 17 different nations.

Recent winners of the Engelberger Award include Dean Kamen, founder of the FIRST Robotics competition; and Rodney Brooks, co-founder of iRobot and current chairman and CTO of Rethink Robotics.

“Joe Engelberger is such a name in robotics,” stated Rodney Brooks after receiving the Engelberger Award for Leadership in 2014. “It’s a real honor to win an award in his name. He is a monumental figure in the field of robotics.”

“Joe Engelberger’s invention of the first industrial robot inspired many of us to pursue a career in this amazing field,” stated Arturo Baroncelli, president of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) and also a past winner of the Engelberger Award. “Thanks to his effort and passion for technology, we have a strong robotics industry today.”

Mr Engelberger is a graduate of Bridgeport’s Bassick High School where he earned high academic honors. But when World War II erupted, he was recruited to a post-Pearl Harbor Hawaii serving in the US Navy from 1942 to 1946.

It was during that period where Mr Engleberger said he began voraciously consuming the works of Isaac Asimov, inspiring the physicist-in-training to begin thinking of robots.

“Robotics served as a hobby in the middle of an education the government wanted me to have,” he said, of his Navy-sponsored education.

A member of the US National Academy of Engineering, Mr Engelberger has received many awards in his career, including the Japan Prize, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers-Leonardo da Vinci Award and the Automation Hall of Fame Prometheus Award.

He has authored numerous articles and books, including Robotics in Practice and Robotics in Service. In his honor, RIA will soon be launching a special Engelberger tribute site, which will be found at robotics.org.

Newtown resident and the proclaimed “Father of Robotics” Joseph F. Engelberger relaxes at home with his daughter Gay the afternoon following his 90th birthday celebration. The physicist told The Newtown Bee that despite a seeming lack of interest and funding, he still has the ability and desire to create a line of robots to support caregiving functions serving the aging global population.  
Joseph F. Engelberger’s modest Newtown residence belies his global celebrity status as the “Father of Robotics.” But in the 1960s and 70s, his work brought him in proximity to celebrities like Johnny Carson, his idol Isaac Asimov (above), and President Ronald Regan (below), who welcomed Mr Engelberger to The White House.
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