Companionship and mental stimulation can make a big difference to an elderly care patient’s quality of life. Could a robot pet provide these benefits?
Healthcare experts are using robot pets in UK care homes to help elderly people with dementia.
These are mainly robot cats and dogs, although there’s also a fluffy white interactive seal pup called Paro available if anyone in a care home can afford the $8500 to buy it.
Research suggests that robot pets can provide stimulation, comfort and companionship, and can help reduce stress and anxiety.
This is good news, considering that more than 425,000 Australians live with dementia, a figure that is estimated will more than double over the next 30 years. Worldwide, 50 million people have dementia, according to the World Health Organization.
Dementia is the second leading cause of death in Australia. There is no cure but, earlier this year, the Australian Government announced $5.3 million funding to support the development of technologies that help people lead more independent, higher quality lives, and stay in their homes for longer.
The funding also supports technologies that help families and carers better understand dementia. When Minister for Aged Care Ken Wyatt announced the funding this past August, he mentioned robot pets as one of the potential areas for development.
Seal of approval
Griffith University’s Professor Wendy Moyle, an expert in Alzheimer’s, has studied the use of Paro, the robot seal, with elderly people who have dementia. Moyle found that interacting with the robot seal had a modest but significant effect on agitation, which she said is the most difficult dementia symptom to reduce.
“Paro has the advantage of being a neutral animal,” Moyle said.
“People have not usually had negative experiences with a baby harp seal.”
Moyle’s research showed that although both the robots and the non-robotic toys — such as Paro when used without the interactive parts switched on — prompted positive pleasurable responses, the people who used the robot seal were more visually and verbally engaged.
“This suggests that it is the robotics that help prompt the positive response rather than the soft, cute, cuddly toy,” she said.
Robot pets, even the really expensive ones, aren’t particularly high-tech. But they don’t need to be.
Paro the seal has tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture sensors in its fake fur and whiskers. It moves and responds to touch, learns and responds to a given name, responds to petting, and moves its tail and paws.
The truth about cats and dogs
The Hasbro Companion Pet range of cats and dogs also contains sensors that trigger different actions when touched. If you stroke their cheeks, they nuzzle your hand. They look at their owner when spoken to, and the dogs even bark back.
Engineer Andrew Jeas, the Chief Operating Officer of Ageless Innovation, the company that makes and distributes Hasbro Companion Pets, explained that placing a large piece of capacitive foil over different parts of the robot’s body, under the fur, enables it to respond to touch.
“There’s also a light sensor, so if you enter a room and turn on the light, the cat meows,” he said.
“It doesn’t move, though, as we wouldn’t want to startle the owner who might struggle with sudden movements.”
Jeas added that a chip with a burned-in code enables designers to upload software for sound files, and that the robot’s drive train contains two motors and a CAM system, each of which performs a different function.
“The dog has an array of microphones around the head and neck area,” he said.
“This triangulates where the sound is coming from and the robot turns towards it — just like a real puppy.”
All this sounds great. But when it comes to providing elderly people with precisely the sort of technology they really need, robot pets are still a work in progress.
Wendy Moyle suggested that any robot pet should be small enough and lightweight enough that small people can hold it comfortably and walk with it. It should be shaped like a real-life animal, not a children’s toy, and have anti-static fur that is easily cleaned.
“Monitoring devices inside the robot pet would also be useful,” she said.
“The person’s body temperature and heart rate can then be measured while the robot is sitting on the individual. A small camera inside the nose or similar would allow researchers to monitor its effect.”
Hannah Bradwell is a PhD student in applied health from Plymouth University in the United Kingdom who is studying the use of Paro in care homes.
She believes that a robot pet for people with dementia doesn’t need that much functionality.
“Paro has voice recognition, so it remembers what people say over a period of time and responds accordingly,” she said.
“This is of no use to people with memory issues, who don’t remember the last time they interacted with the robot. A person with dementia benefits from the robot’s immediate response.”
Jake Shaw-Sutton, an engineer with robotics company Robotriks, which is working with Bradwell, explained that the ideal functionality for a robot pet is generally hard to ascertain.
“It’s down to individual interpretation,” he said.
“Some people connect better when the robot moves after they look at it, others when the robot responds to voice commands.”
Robotriks unveiled its prototype robot this past November. Shaw-Sutton explained that it is based on soft robotics, deform structures and custom mechanics.
“This enables us to develop a robot with more organic, realistic movements,” he said.
Shaw-Sutton added that the new robot is a general platform that can be adapted into whichever animal a particular user prefers.
“Some like cats, dogs, hedgehogs, red pandas,” he said.
“So inside it’s the same robot but with different shells and skins.”
The right bot
None of this is an exact science, because only one third of the equation is a programmable robot. Not every care home manager and their staff will take to using robot animals. And not every elderly person with dementia will respond well to them.
Moyle found that Paro the seal didn’t work for everyone and didn’t improve sleep patterns. She doesn’t think robot pets should be used as a mass intervention, only when staff and family are busy.
“It is most suitable for those with early to mid-stage dementia and without severe agitated behaviours,” she said.
Sutton added that it’s important for engineers to find out what dementia experts and people with dementia need and build that functionality into the robot, rather than developing a platform and then justifying what it does.
By involving experts and users during the design process, changes can be made if something does not work or if someone has a good idea.
Jeas warned, however, that it is important for engineers to take a measured approach towards designing more sophisticated, high-tech robot pets.
“Older people are not as tech savvy as engineers and technology professionals,” he said.
“We need something that meets people’s needs, in the best way, of course. But we also need something that the people themselves can just switch on and use.”
Bradwell believes that the robot seal is too expensive for an ordinary person or the average care home.
“What we need are cheaper alternatives with sensors that respond to touch,” she said.
Robotriks’ Jake Shaw-Sutton agrees that machine learning has to be delivered affordably.
“You probably don’t need full voice recognition based on deep learning,” he said.
“We can use basic sounds for the animal to respond through recognising an audio wave form. This means lower-powered hardware, which is cheaper.”
Anecdotal evidence from UK care home staff who have used robot pets with their clients suggests that when a person with dementia interacts with the robot, they become more generally sociable. This, experts believe, is good for the person’s emotional expression, mood and speech fluency. The pets seemed to induce feelings of wellbeing, counteract loneliness, and help to lower blood pressure.
Interacting with the pets, experts noticed, sparked conversations between people and care providers, and distracted people with dementia from repetitive behaviour.
“It’s similar to interacting with a live animal, except the robot doesn’t have any needs or make any demands,” Bradwell said.
This article originally appeared as “Therapy bot” in the February 2019 edition of create magazine.