Middlesex University London

Lonely UK Care Home Residents Will Soon Have Robots To Talk To

Although it's tempting to think of them as existing in a murky-yet-shiny future somewhere over the horizon, robots already perform hundreds of tasks for us and they've done so for a long time. They help put cars together and vacuum our floors and sort food in production facilities and inspect things like sewer or oil pipelines for obstructions. They do important things that, often enough, humans don't want to do or can't do easily.

However, there's one thing that humans can do very well that robots will be asked to do as well, and it's incredibly important: providing simple companionship.

Loneliness is a real problem for care home residents.

While many do have family members who simply don't have the time in their day-to-day lives to visit as often as they'd like, others sadly don't have any family left. And although there are always staff members on hand, there just won't be enough to go around at all times and they have other duties to perform.

In the U.K., there's a plan to fill that gap using robots.

Researchers in the U.K. have been studying the use of interactive, "culturally competent" robots in care homes.

Facebook | SoftBank Robotics Europe

The wheeled robots involved in the study are called Pepper. Developed by SoftBank Robotics, they're not about to replace humans, but they're designed to interact with humans, and they're capable of learning about care home residents and their interests.

The Pepper units can carry out rudimentary conversations, play music, help residents learn languages, and provide reminders to take medicines, among other tasks.

In the study, care home residents at facilities in Britain and Japan lived with Peppers on-site for about 18 hours a day for two weeks.

Facebook | SoftBank Robotics Europe

The results showed some promise, with residents who interacted with Pepper reporting a small decrease in feelings of loneliness and improved mental health.

They weren't perfect, as residents who interacted with Pepper said it lacked "richness" and personalization, leaving some feeling like the interaction had been superficial.

But as the researchers emphasized, the idea isn't to replace human care home workers with robots.

Facebook | SoftBank Robotics Europe

"In the UK alone, 15,000 people are over 100 years of age and this figure will only increase," Middlesex University's Professor Irina Papadopoulos said in a press release.

"Socially assistive, intelligent robots for older people could relieve some pressures in hospitals and care homes. No-one is talking about replacing humans - the evaluation demonstrates that we are a long way from doing that - but it also reveals that robots could support existing care systems."

And while the system still needs a few years of development, U.K. care homes have signalled an interest in moving forward with the robots as part of their care.

Facebook | SoftBank Robotics Europe

Advinia Healthcare, one of the nation's largest dementia care providers and a test site for the study told The Guardian that it was "working towards implementing this into routine care of vulnerable people to reduce anxiety and loneliness and provide continuity of care."

"This is the only artificial intelligence that can enable an open-ended communication with a robot and a vulnerable resident," said Advinia's chairman, Dr Sanjeev Kanoria. "Now we are working towards bringing the robot into routine care, so it can be of real help to older adults and their families."

h/t: The Guardian, Middlesex University London