Robots provide tranquillity and care

By Philippa Martin-King

For many severe health conditions such as Alzheimer's disease or autism, which statistics seem to indicate are on the rise, it has been shown that robotic assistance can help tremendously if not in supplanting human care, at least in supporting and supplementing it. Robots can help too in other areas of costly institutional care such as coaching for weight loss.

Paro in a nursing home. Source: Twanetowerk
Paro in a nursing home. Source: Twanetowerk

Need for robotic assistance to counter costly healthcare

Statistically, the incidence of degenerative or disabling health conditions among both the young and the elderly is rising. Younger generations have often moved away and settled down in distant places, so families have been split up and separated. That makes looking after elderly relatives a challenge. Finding carers to look after an ageing family member no longer able to cope for themself is difficult and costly, particularly from a distance. When a disabling health condition is diagnosed, the stress of the care and the financial burden may become acute. On the other end of the age scale, a child who is diagnosed with an autistic disorder although they may be capable of carrying out certain tasks, still requires additional special care that is both time-consuming and costly.

Inability to interact socially

Children suffering from autistic disorders and elderly sufferers of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's are equally unable to interact socially. On the one hand, the children are incapable of making and maintaining friends and shy away from any social contact that to them appears threatening, and on the other, the afflicted adults become incapable of recognising social or family ties and are dependent on others for carrying out the simplest of tasks. In both cases, studies carried out with robots have shown positive results in having a calming and beneficial result.

Opportunity for robotic industry to become carers

Contrary to what people might first think, Dominique Sciamma, who heads the interactive Systems & Objects Design department of Strate Collège Designers in Paris, France, says that a robot does not necessarily have to take human form. Just as man can replace bits of himself – for example an arm with a robotic element that is able to take decisions – so any shape capable of building up a relationship with a human can prove positive.

Indeed, some studies have shown that if you provide a robot with a familiar form such as a person or pet and it doesn't behave according to expectations, people end up being disappointed. However if you base it on a less familiar form, such as a seal, they are likely to develop a better emotional attachment.

A creature patients can hold and touch

A Japanese-developed "socially-interactive robot", built on the model of a baby harp seal, has shown tremendous results in dealing with difficult Alzheimer's disease patients. The simple presence of a "creature" that the patient can touch and hold and that is able to respond in a minimal way, is sufficient to defuse the behaviour of the most hostile and angry adults.

The Paro robot was designed by Takanori Shibata of the Intelligent System Research Institute of AIST (Advanced Industrial Science and Technology), Japan in 1993. One of the class of service robots designed for a purpose other than manufacturing, it takes its inspiration from an unfamiliar animal, the baby harp seal that can be found in the north-eastern part of Canada. Despite its apparent passive cuddly look, under its layer of artificial fur and its electromagnetic shield that allows it to be used by people with a pacemaker, this autonomous robot is full of state-of-the-art electrotechnology.

State-of-the-art electrotechnology

Quoting the National Institute of AIST, "Paro has five kinds of sensors: tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture sensors, with which it can perceive people and its environment. With the light sensor, Paro can recognize light and dark. He feels being stroked and beaten by tactile sensor, or being held by the posture sensor. Paro can also recognize the direction of voice and words such as its name, greetings, and praise with its audio sensor. Paro can learn to behave in a way that the user prefers, and to respond to its new name. For example, if you stroke it every time you touch it, Paro will remember your previous action and try to repeat that action to be stroked. If you hit it, Paro remembers its previous action and tries not to do that action. By interaction with people, Paro responds as if it is alive, moving its head and legs, making sounds, and showing your preferred behavior. Paro also imitates the voice of a real baby harp seal."

Perhaps it's as Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino from the European funded LIREC (Living with robots and interactive companions) says: "Because we spend our lives creating emotional links with objects such as the vase our grandmother gave us, so we do with robots. Even though they too are objects, it makes us sad when they break down".

In the case of autistic children put in the presence of robots, it is thought that one of the benefits of interacting with a robot is that it does away with the normal human spontaneous emotions, sudden eye movements or fast facial or hand gestures that they find so difficult to decipher. By keeping these "alarming movements" to a minimum and removing the element of threat they constitute, the children relax and are able to cope better.

Chronic diseases are expensive

Another area of healthcare where robots are finding a new role as carers is in hospitals where they are used as a medium to ask patients personal questions. Cynthia Breazeal of the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Lab Personal Robots Group points out that robots can help build social rapport and long-term change. Because they are perceived as being non-judgmental and they do not suffer from burn-out like human carers, they are able to act as useful partners in helping people come to terms with chronic diseases and long-term needs such as losing weight.

Robots can become a useful health-coaching interface, motivating people to follow a doctor's strategy for relational development. They can help patients make healthy decisions and form healthy habits. On the whole people interact better with a robot than they would with a PC screen or a notepad. On scales of trust they perform better. So, when it comes to long-term patient follow-up, for example in the case of weight loss, the presence of a robot will tend to have a more beneficial result.

Paro in a nursing home. Source: Twanetowerk Paro in a nursing home. Source: Twanetowerk
Hong Kong-based Intuitive Automata, an interactive robot acts as a coach in losing weight. Hong Kong-based Intuitive Automata, an interactive robot acts as a coach in losing weight.