Lifelike Robo Pets Help Seniors Combat Loneliness

In 2004, a Japanese company came out with a “biofeedback medical device” called PARO (which stands for “physically assistive robot”). Shaped like a harp seal, PARO has soft, white fur and black eyes rimmed with dense eyelashes and topped with expressive eyebrow spots. It is heated and weighs about as much as a pet cat — it moves and makes noises and blinks its eyes like a live seal, too. PARO sounds like a robotic stuffed animal, and it is. But it costs over $6,000 is because it’s a robot designed with a very specific job in mind: keeping older adults company.

PARO was one of the first successful applications of robotics in healthcare, and although it’s still on the market nearly two decades later, there have been huge advances in robotics over that time, and it’s no longer the only device of its kind available. In 2015, Hasbro spinoff Joy for All started making robotic cats and dogs for seniors. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, as the state of New York was shutting down their day programs for seniors, the state ordered over a thousand of the robot cats and dogs to distribute to the people they could no longer help in person. 

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Why Do Seniors Need Robots?

In nearly every country in the world, the median age is rising. The proportion of the world’s population over the age of 60 is expected to nearly double between 2015 and 2050, from 12 percent to 22 percent. That means there will be many more senior people to care for in the coming years. 

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted a lot about what older adults need as far as physical care, but also about their mental health care needs as well. Seniors living alone were isolated because they couldn’t get out of their houses, and family members and other caretakers couldn’t stop by as often or at all. Those in retirement homes couldn’t spend as much time visiting one another, and outside visitors were prohibited from entering facilities for months at a time. 

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As a result, the pandemic saw an uptick in interest in robotic companions, as well as research into more general robotics applications in eldercare — things like how to remotely administer tests, check people’s temperatures and clean their spaces.

“I don’t think anyone wants their grandmother to spend the last two years of her life hanging out with a robot,” says Shane Saunderson, the founder of Artificial Futures, a robotics design firm. “But the reality is, it’s getting harder to find nurses for these kinds of positions — it’s emotionally and physically hard work and it doesn’t pay as well as these people deserve. So, the question becomes: How can we augment that existing staff and take off some low-hanging fruit?”

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What Can (and Can’t) Robots Do?

Care robots like PARO and the Joy for All cats and dogs have been shown to benefit seniors by reducing loneliness, increasing social interaction and helping stabilize mood in dementia patients. That’s great, but as we see the proportion of the world’s older population increase, it would be nice if robots could handle more of the heavy lifting.

“We’re still so far from making a perfectly functioning humanoid robot that can do most of what we do,” says Saunderson. “That’s still such a pie-in-the-sky thing, just because the human body is really complex. We don’t see many physical or functional care robots who can do what a nurse can do — say, give a sponge bath or help someone in and out of a bed or a chair.”

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There are a couple reasons for this, the first being that the technology isn’t there yet, but also the fact that liability is a big problem. 

“If a robot drops your grandmother, it’s going to create some issues,” says Saunderson. 

So, most of the successes in robotics and eldercare are akin to companionship: engaging people in games, reminding people to take pills or eat meals, helping them to pick out an outfit, motivating them to exercise or get out of bed.

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Why Do Companion Robots Work?

Perhaps the most fascinating and bizarre aspect of companion robots is why they work. One of the first illustrations of this came out of a 1996 study from Stanford University. 

Essentially, the experiment involved groups of participants entering boring data on a computer that popped up vague, encouraging messages at them as they worked. At the end of the task, all participants were asked to fill out an evaluation about their experience. Some of the participants answered the evaluation questions on the same computer where they completed their task, and others were asked to move to an identical computer a few feet away to answer the survey.

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The surprising outcome of this study was that participants’ answers were far more critical of their experience if they completed the survey on a different machine than the one that fed them canned encouragement while they worked. 

The reason for this, the researchers concluded, is that humans are so hardwired for social connection that the participants were reluctant to hurt the computer’s feelings. The findings of the Stanford study have been replicated many times at this point, and there’s actually a name for this phenomenon now: CASA, or “computers are social actors.”

“The need for belonging and socialization is actually viewed as one of our fundamental needs, the same as oxygen, food and water,” says Saunderson. “The idea is that we human beings are so hardwired for social connection that we will even forgo reality to find social connection with inanimate things if they give us even the slightest reason to.”

Which is why robotic zoomorphic pets work: We want companionship, which means we’ll snuggle with pet robots, name our cars, apologize to our phones when we drop them or complain that our computers hate us when they’re not working the way we’d like them to. 

Objects don’t take the place of humans, but in desperate cases, our brains will convince us that they’ll do.

“Robot” comes from the Czech word robota, meaning “drudgery.”

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