Social Robotics

Can social robots help you to feel less lonely?

If you are young and active, you may think ‘why would I want to be friends with a robot?’. This tech may not be for you – yet – but what about an older person who feels lonely? Or someone suffering from Dementia who finds it hard to connect to others?

One robot friend you may want to make is Paro, the harp seal. His clever features help him to become his owner’s perfect pet. He can learn all about you and your routine, enabling him to be ‘awake’ before you usually rise, position ready for how you prefer to cuddle and will even learn to respond to any new name you give him. One of his sweetest features is that you charge him through his mouth, so it feels less like charging a machine, more like tucking him in at night – especially with the optional dummy! With decades of research behind him, he is recommended for companionship with those who are unable to have or care for a pet, typically in care homes or hospital wards. Even those living at home independently, who feel lonely or isolated could benefit from Paro’s charm.

Other social robots are more human-like, such as NAO and Pepper. These two have childlike, friendly faces with non-threatening large eyes. Their hands were specifically designed for gesturing to make the robot easier to relate to - and to feel less sinister. Peppers’ hands aren’t strong enough to grip or perform manual tasks, so they can’t make a nice cup of tea or offer a sponge bath, but can lend an ear and respond appropriately too, as the robot can detect emotion through facial expressions and tone of voice.

Some of these robots are ‘open source’ which means anyone can create software to operate the robot, making them completely customisable for the task it is needed for. This could be leading an exercise call to build strength to prevent falls, or to act as a friendly assistant in specific locations.

Critics claim that the technology is a gimmick - in Japan they are commonly used as receptionists and waiters - but the potential uses in health and social care could help people to remember to take medications, help doctors monitor patients and offer a talking point to help breakdown barriers with peers and professionals alike.

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