Robot caregivers aim to improve seniors' quality of life

Robot caregivers aim to improve seniors' quality of life

Tangy the bingo-playing robot will make its debut as part of pilot study at a long-term care facility in Toronto in the coming weeks.

Statistics Canada estimates people aged 65 and older will account for almost a quarter of the population by 2051. Engineering Prof. Goldie Nejat at the University of Toronto says health-care robots represent the biggest source of funding for her lab from government and industry.

Nejat says robot caregivers can help health-care providers with simple repetitive tasks like meal preparation. But they can also assist the elderly with social and cognitive skills.

"The idea is looking towards robots as a type of technology, which we can use in our homes, in long-term care facilities and hospitals," says Nejat, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Robots for Society. "They can help us to improve quality of life."

In addition to Tangy, Nejat’s team created Brian, a robotic dinner companion for seniors who live in nursing homes, as well as Casper, designed for those who are more independent.

Casper will remind a homeowner when to eat, where the food is stored, as well as help with meal preparation. All of them have facial features such as a smile and hand gestures. "We design the robots to be able to have these natural expressions so that a person can easily understand them," says Nejat.

Tangy’s role at the O’Neill Centre in Toronto will be as a bingo caller with an occasional joke thrown in for good measure. But it can also pick up if a resident isn’t paying attention or has trouble seeing the number and it will move over to help.

Social services co-ordinator Cinzia Limotta brought Tangy to the centre before as a test run. Limotta said residents and their families were excited.

"We feel that Tangy or robots definitely complement the programs and services we already offer for right now just in terms of activities and program," Limotta says. "We really do think nothing can replace the human touch."

Robots are becoming more commonplace in our lives. From factory floors to restaurants — even the subject of film festivals and stage shows — robots are changing how we work and play. The worldwide market for all robots is expected to hit nearly $100 billion US by 2020, according to Robohub.

Japan is at the epicentre of this robo-revolution. Their embrace of robotic technology is said to be rooted in the Shinto faith, which places equal value on animate and inanimate objects. And with a population that is rapidly aging, the Japanese are looking to robo-solutions.

One is a baby seal, named Paro, which responds to touch and talk. Paro is becoming an important therapeutic tool at long-term care facilities not only in Japan but around the world, including a few in Canada.

Yet some question the role of robot caregivers, especially for those who are frail or who suffer from dementia. Ethicist Sherry Turkle from MIT in Boston says robots can make it easier to offload human responsibilities and human relationships. "We’re kind of setting ourselves up for really inauthentic relationships and I just think we should ask ourselves why we are doing this?"

Limotta agrees a robot cannot replace the human touch or the human experience, but sees their role as an adjunct.

Nejat plans to use the Tangy experiment to get more feedback. She expects within the next five to 10 years, all of her robot caregivers will be on the market. At a cost of under $10,000, she hopes they will be easily purchased for homes and hospitals.

For a wider look at how robots are changing our lives, tune into the documentaryRoboticize Me on Thursday at 9 p.m ET on CBC-TV's Doc Zone.