“It’s not just what technology can do or not do. The human must be considered in the equation,” says engineering psychologist Jenay Beer.
Beer understands human capabilities and limitations and her goal is to apply this psychological understanding to inform technology design. “We can’t lose sight of the human factors,” she says.
In her current work as an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, Beer directs the Assistive Robotics and Technology Lab (ART Lab). There she leads her students in focusing on the interactions between humans and robots and smart home technology.
Beer never envisioned herself working with robots. Originally wanting to be a psychologist, she also loved technology and wanted to somehow combine the two. Deciding to pursue graduate work, she discovered the emerging field of Engineering Psychology and learned that Georgia Tech offered the best program.
So the Ohio native ended up in Atlanta (the Georgia Aquarium, Piedmont Park, and Highland Bakery are a few of her favorite hangouts) and earned both masters and doctorate degrees at Tech. It was there that she realized specifically what she wanted to do with her all knowledge and training.
“The lab I worked in focused on the aging. I fell in love with this population and began studying how robots could help them maintain their independence, improve their quality of life and allow them to remain at home and grow old. “
Beer’s robots can do a variety of things from household chores (cleaning, vacuuming, making the bed) to handing medication to a person. The robots don’t think for themselves, just take direction. For example, a robot cannot decide which medication a person needs to take…it simply brings what the person asks for.
She and her students test their robots at local continuing care retirement communities, where they’re welcomed with open arms.
“Through my years in research I found older adults weren’t afraid of technology, like you’d think they would. If it’s easy to use and meets their needs, they will adopt it. They often have a social connection with the robots and want to name them.”
Despite her success with robots, it’s her students that Beer is most proud of.
“When I’m teaching and hear them grasp the concepts, use the right terminology and ask the right questions, it is thrilling. It really is like a ripple: a ripple of me teaching my students and them rippling it forward and having an impact on our world.”
Rosemary Taylor is a writer and digital content strategist; firstname.lastname@example.org