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BeerIntPageStepping into the office of Dr. Jenay Beer is like stepping into a science fiction film—telepresence systems zoom past and humanoid robotics begin talking. Dr. Beer’s world is one in which the study of human interactions and social work collide with engineering and robotics technology.

With an advanced degree in engineering psychology, Dr. Beer has a unique background that allows her to use technological applications to better the lives of those who are struggling socially.

“Currently our work has two focuses,” says Dr. Beer. “One is through the SmartHOME™ initiative where I am working alongside Dr. Sue Levkoff. Through this initiative, we are helping older adults remain independent longer. The second is child-focused, where we are using robots to help children learn and overcome disabilities such as autism.”

 

The idea of elderly parents and loved ones being able to remain independently in their own home is fast becoming a reality with the work being done at the University of South Carolina’s SmartHOME™ initiative. Using technology called telepresence systems, loved ones and medical professionals can check in on elderly individuals at home through a tablet device on wheels.

“Think of it as Skype or FaceTime,” says Dr. Beer. “You are able to connect to a tablet in the patient’s home to check in on him or her. But here’s the cool part,” she says with a smile. “The tablet is on wheels so you can move around the home and find mom or dad, grandma or grandpa—whoever the loved one may be. You can move with mom from the living room to the kitchen while she takes her medication. You can make sure dad has the proper food in the refrigerator, all without stepping foot in the home.”

Dr. Beer points out that this is the next generation of caregiving, especially for working households where around-the-clock caregiving is not as feasible.

The second focus of Dr. Beer’s work is with children and youth.

“It can be difficult for students to stay engaged when working on homework problems,” says Dr. Beer. “The humanoid robot we are working with has the ability to do multiplication problems with a child. If the child answers incorrectly, the robot explains why the answer is incorrect and gives the child a second opportunity to get the answer right.”

Dr. Beer and her team are in the planning stages of using this same type of robot in applications such as music therapy. This technology could help engage a child with autism or one who faces social phobias.

“Through all of these research efforts, our intention is never to replace a person,” emphasizes Dr. Beer. “We are simply creating tools that help us enhance lives, promote healthy lifestyles, and impact social connectivity.”

Dr. Beer credits her team and her students with the progress made in these research efforts.

“My favorite part of this job is being able to work with students from social work, psychology, engineering, and computing. It’s by learning from each person’s interdisciplinary perspective that we are able to advance our efforts. As my students graduate, I hope to remain connected to them and continue to learn from them wherever they go and whatever they create.”

In the next three to five years, Dr. Beer hopes to have a better understanding of what we should and should not focus on when it comes to robotic interactions in society.

“The more research we are able to conduct with these technologies, the more confident we can be moving forward. No robot revolutions happening in this storyline,” she laughs. “Simply bettering lives through the use of technology.”
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