“Don’t worry about Master Luke. I’m sure he’ll be all right. He’s quite clever, you know… for a human being”, C3P0 quips in the movie Star Wars.
The relationship between robots and humans will become much closer over the next ten years, and perhaps even replicate that famous friendship. After all, governments around the world are building robots to help tackle a particular challenge: supporting an ageing population.
Here are four leading examples of robots that can assist in elderly care.
Paro is a therapeutic seal that helps the elderly relax and socialise with caretakers. It functions essentially as a robot pet: it responds to a given name, enjoys cuddles, imitates sounds of a baby harp seal, and feeds (or, charges) through an electronic pacifier.
The robot has been used to calm the elderly with violent fits – commonly those who have dementia or face a loss of cognitive function. To that extent, having large eyes that blink and trail your movements works as a plus. It remembers if it’s been stroked, or hit – which it is built to dislike – and will then act in manners that will encourage more coddling.
Paro’s use is an innovative turn to animal therapy – where healthcare facilities cannot house live animals for hygiene and safety purposes. In the States, Livermore Veteran’s Hospital saw improved service delivery with Paro; it has conducted studies to see if the seals could replace anti-anxiety medication.
“We’ll bring out the Paro robot and set it down and they’ll start talking to the Paro, they’ll talk to other people, it’ll brighten their mood”, Kathy Craig, therapist at Livermore Veteran’s Hospital told Kalw.
However, her team has found that it works better with patients with dementia, compared to the rest of their veterans, “because if the residents are aware that it’s not real, we find that sometimes they don’t engage with it as much”.
Paro is a Japanese invention. It costs US$5,000, weighs like a newborn baby and feels warm to touch.
It’s all paws on deck with Robear, the gentle droid that helps healthcare staff to lift the elderly from beds and assists them to stand and walk. “The polar cub-like look is aimed at radiating an atmosphere of strength, geniality and cleanliness at the same time”, explained Toshiharu Mukai, the lead researcher of the high-tech teddy.
Japan faces an ageing population and a birth rate that continues to fall, so it isn’t a wonder that researchers are building tools to lessen the load of caretakers. Such robots can take the strain off caregivers, who may have to shift patients from beds to wheelchairs many times a day and risk lower-back pain, Riken states.
Robear is equipped with sensors to gently lift and support the elderly. Robear’s joints move with speed and precision, utilising a mechanical device that allows softer movements. The robot has “legs that can be extended when necessary”, but retracted when it needs to maneuver through tight spaces such as through doorways.
It follows after two of its predecessors. It is improved: with a smaller base; and lighter: at 140 kilogrammes. “We intend to continue with research toward more practical robots capable of providing powerful yet gentle care to elderly people”, Mukai said.
However, Riken no longer carries out the research after Mukai left the institute; He is currently tweaking Robear’s functions, and working on a bunch of other stuff at Meijo University.
Robocoach, or Xuan, is an exercise coach for the elderly. It leads personalised exercise sessions in Singapore by tracking the elderly’s’ movement with sensors, and guides them if they do it wrong.
The project is part of the government’s active ageing initiative. It has two tablets – a smaller one acts as Xuan’s face, and the latter controls the robot’s functions. Robocoach can respond to voice, check the weather and latest news, and reply to the elderly.
Xuan has proven popular with the seniors at the activity centres. “I love the robot very much”, said Chen Yit Yoong, an elderly person who exercised with the Robocoach at the community centre. “The robot’s eyes move, as if it is talking to us while showing us how to move our hands.”
4. Origami robot
The origami robot is tiny: it can be swallowed in pill form and move through the digestive tract to dislodge foreign objects and patch stomach wounds.
The robot – still in experimental phase – is shaped in accordion folds for motion. A permanent magnet is wedged in one of the folds, and it moves by responding to changing magnetic fields outside the body.
“For applications inside the body, we need a small, controllable, untethered robot system. It’s really difficult to control and place a robot inside the body if the robot is attached to a tether”, said Daniela Rus, professor at MIT.
The project is a collaborative effort between Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sheffield University, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
The robot is made primarily of dried pig intestine, and a biodegradable shrink wrap that contracts when heated. This allows the robot its movements.
The team hopes that their brainchild can be used to remove swallowed button batteries to prevent tissue burns. This method could potentially be less invasive for the elderly. They believe that it can be modified for drug delivery and surgeries in inaccessible regions of the stomach and gut, according to the Telegraph.
From furry seals and gentle bears, to an exercise coach and an ingestible surgeon, there are definitely more ways for droids to serve the ageing healthcare industry. Make way for the era of innovative robot helpers.
Main image by José Antonio Cartelle, licensed under CC BY 2.0
Paro by Scott Brown, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Robear from gkfactory’s youtube channel
Origami robot from MIT News