A robot guides a person through a building

Tamim Asfour originally wanted to become a doctor, but today he is a professor of humanoid robotics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. For more than two decades, he has been researching humanoid robots designed to improve the quality of elderly people’s life by enabling them to live a self-determined life within their own four walls for as long as possible. Asfour also wants to relieve the burden on staff in care homes and hospitals, and counteract the consequences of demographic change using robotics. The Carl Zeiss Foundation is supporting him.

Tamim Asfour built his first robots from wires and can lids. Back then, both the toy and Asfour were still young. He grew up in a small village in the south of Syria. A scholarship then lured him to Germany. Today, he is a professor at the Institute of Anthropomatics and Robotics (IAR) in the Faculty of Computer Science at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). For more than ten years, he has headed up "High-Performance Humanoid Technologies" there as a Professor of Humanoid Robotic Systems. And toys became real humanoid robots.

Prof. Dr. Tamim Asfour develops robots for elderly care

"That wasn't the plan," says Prof. Dr. Tamim Asfour today, laughing. He actually had very different career aspirations: "I wanted to become a doctor, like many young people in Syria," he says. "The nearest practice was more than 50 kilometers away from my home village. If my career aspirations had come true, people from the village and neighboring villages wouldn't have had to travel so far." He also attended a few medical lectures, but then he was offered a scholarship in Germany – albeit in electrical engineering.

The human body as a source of inspiration

Nevertheless, Asfour did not want to miss out on this opportunity. He first learned German in Heidelberg and attended the preparatory college before starting to study at the then University of Karlsruhe – now known as KIT. What interested him most, however, was not part of his curriculum, it was Robotics. "I specialized in control engineering during my studies and always wanted to understand how to implement control strategies that generate movement in an intelligent way," he says. So he attended extracurricular robotics lectures and later even completed a doctorate in the subject at the Faculty of Computer Science.

Professor of Humanoid Robotics, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

If robots can support elderly people at home, fewer of them will need to go into a retirement or nursing home. And if they do, robots can help the nursing staff. That's what we're working on.

Prof. Dr. Tamim Asfour

Professor of Humanoid Robotics, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

The future of care: how can robots support senior citizens?

Prof. Dr. Tamim Asfour on robots in elderly care

Robots for elderly care

From doctor to engineer and computer scientist – from medicine to robotics: Tamim Asfour's profession and vocation are not so far apart today. "An important motivation for my research is people, their performance and movement intelligence". Inspired by the human body, he derives mechanical structures that are not as complicated in structure as the human body, but are just as versatile in terms of their capabilities – and technically controllable. Anthropomatics helps him with this. "This is the science of the symbiosis between man and machine," explains the professor: "If we want to develop human-centered systems, we need to understand a great deal about people. The human body is the source of inspiration for me." But where is all this heading?

  • Prof. Dr. Tamim Asfour develops robots for elderly care
  • Development of robots in the lab
  • Development of robots in the lab
  • Development of robots in the lab
  • Prof. Dr. Tamim Asfour entwickelt Roboter für die Altenpflege
  • Entwicklung der Roboter im Labor
  • Entwicklung der Roboter im Labor
  • Entwicklung der Roboter im Labor

Robots in rehabilitation – and in daily life

There is a close connection between robotics and medicine: Asfour wants to utilize the possibilities of robotics to improve healthcare for people. That is his ambition. And he is succeeding in doing just that. For example, in the field of rehabilitation. Here, "exoskeletons" can support the work of physiotherapists, among others.

An exoskeleton acts as an external support structure. It can help to support people with motor impairments or to perform certain rehabilitation exercises correctly. Asfour tells the story of a student who has had problems with his shoulder since birth – and therefore with the movement of his left arm. Together with orthopedists and shoulder surgeons, the professor has defined specific movement sequences that the student can use to train his impaired arm in a targeted manner. "Based on this, we have developed an exoskeleton that mimics these movements very accurately," explains Asfour. "We will never be able to replace therapists or doctors," says Asfour, "but we can develop technologies that people need through interdisciplinary collaboration."

Development of robots in the lab

This also applies to another very special application: humanoid robots. "We have been researching the development of humanoid robots for more than two decades," says Asfour. One of his projects is called "JuBot – Staying Young with Robots: Versatile Assistive Robotics for Mastering Daily Life". The scientist views this as a solution to demographic change.

In Germany, the proportion of people over the age of 65 has more than doubled in the past 70 years – from ten to 22 percent. This problem will get worse in the future. This is accompanied by an increase in people in need of care: The older society gets, the more people will need care services. This is particularly worrying because there is already an acute shortage of personnel in the care sector. "Robotics is the solution to these problems," says Asfour. "Because if robots support elderly people at home, fewer of them will need to go into a retirement or nursing home. And if they do, robots can help the nursing staff. That's what we're working on."

His robots are therefore not only aimed at assisting staff in care facilities, but also at supporting people in need of help in their everyday lives. This can include, for example, helping them to set the table and tidy up or relieving them of other physically demanding household tasks. The aim is to enable these people to live a self-determined life within their own four walls for as long as possible.

Robotics meets pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit

Research in the field of robotics is also being conducted at the ZEISS Innovation Hub @ KIT. In a modern campus atmosphere, science meets the spirit of young start-ups and the entrepreneurial spirit of established players. In this environment, a team from ZEISS Group Research is working on medical robotics. Inspired by the needs of surgeons, the team develops assistance systems for microsurgery and ophthalmology – in numerous collaborations with universities, research institutions and clinics.

5 facts about demographic change

  • 77.1 years

    is the expected average life expectancy by 2050.1

  • 2019

    life expectancy was still 72 years.2

  • 66 million

    is the number by which the world's population is currently growing every year.3

  • 58%

    of the world's population is over 25 years old. The richer a country is, the less likely young people are to live there.4

A robot shakes hands with a human

Carl Zeiss Foundation supports JuBot project at KIT

The Carl Zeiss Foundation has also recognized that there is a need here. It is funding the project with 4.5 million euros over a period of five years until 2026. "By supporting research projects in our focus areas of AI and life science technologies, we are helping to tackle the major social challenges of digitalization and health," explains Dr. Felix Streiter, Managing Director of the Carl Zeiss Foundation.

Asfour and his team are still delighted with the funding, as it enables concrete progress to be made in research. For example, the institute can finance positions and hire additional scientific staff, set up additional test tracks or invest in hardware to realize the robots. "Thanks to the funding from the Carl Zeiss Foundation, we can spend five years intensively researching various aspects and challenges of assistance robots," he explains.

Prof. Dr. Tamim Asfour works on a robot in the lab

And the financial support is having an impact. The laboratory at KIT has primarily consisted of a kitchen since 2004. "This is the trickiest place for people – and therefore also for machines. If a robot can master the tasks and challenges here, it will be able to master them anywhere," explains Asfour. Even after two decades, his work is still at the level of basic research, explains the scientist. "But we have now reached a level that allows us to go into other environments such as care homes or hospitals and gain practical insights that are essential for the further development of robots. In such environments, our robots no longer interact exclusively with doctoral students, but with patients or elderly people too. This means that they have to adapt to their abilities in terms of motor skills, language and behavior."

ZEISS and the Carl Zeiss Foundation:

Commitment to research and innovation

The close connection between ZEISS and the Carl Zeiss Foundation (CZS) is deeply rooted in the shared history and founding spirit of 1889, when Ernst Abbe established the foundation. As the sole owner of Carl Zeiss AG and SCHOTT AG, the Foundation is committed to promoting science and innovation: a guiding principle that runs through the entire organization and determines its actions. As one of the largest science-promoting foundations in Germany, the CZS promotes research and development at universities, colleges and non-university research institutes. As owner of ZEISS, it enables the company to make long-term investments in research and development and thus contributes to ZEISS' ability to lead the way as a global technology company in promising fields such as robotics.

Portrait of Prof. Dr. Tamim Asfour

We don't want to destroy jobs and a robot will never be able to replace a human being. He can't give anyone a hug and comfort them. But robots can support the staff.

Prof. Dr. Tamim Asfour

Professor of Humanoid Robotics Systems, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

Robots as supporters

Despite all the euphoria, Asfour and his team are also skeptical. "Some fear for their jobs, others fear super-intelligence and the robot revolution," reports the researcher. That's why he always makes it clear: "We don't want to destroy jobs and a robot will never be able to replace a human being. He can't give anyone a hug and comfort them. But robots can support the staff. They are getting better and better at this."

Thanks in part to his work. That's why he wants to keep on researching. He turned down a high-paying offer for robotics research in Singapore. He wants to stay in Karlsruhe. He could only imagine working as a doctor in Syria. "But that's a dream," he says. Incidentally, his friends and family in Syria no longer have to travel far to the nearest surgery, despite him leaving the country. Asfour's brother became a doctor. Perhaps the two of them will practice together again at some point.

In focus: robotics in care

  • First and foremost, robotics in care is about relieving the burden on staff. For example, robots can support care staff with many everyday tasks. These include recording vital signs and dispensing medication. They can provide information about news, remind patients of appointments or contact their families. Equipped with artificial intelligence, it is even possible for robots to process health data and derive diagnoses that are shared with medical staff, for example by recognizing depression from non-verbal cues.  

  • Basically, care robots can be divided into three categories: service robots, lifting robots and social robots. Service robots can carry out everyday tasks and transport objects. Like service robots, lifting robots can also help to reduce the workload of care staff. For example, by relieving them of physically heavy work, such as lifting patients. Social robots are unsuitable for such work, but they cover another important area of care: they can follow the rules of interactive communication and are able to learn behavioral patterns or even recognize voices.

  • Scientists largely agree that robots cannot replace human caregivers. However, they can help them and take on more and more tasks – both physical and cognitive ones. This includes, for example, turning patients in bed, which is very strenuous for nursing staff, holding patients during repositioning or contactless measurement of vital signs such as pulse or body temperature, including automated entry in the patient file. This means that robots can be the future – but only ever with humans.