Robots on a mission to visit old people’s homes

Thursday 9 August 2012
Robot image
Antonio in the lab
More famous for trying to wipe out humanity (in science fiction at least), robots can in fact improve our quality of life considerably, according to a University of Salford researcher who’s been taking them on visits to old people’s homes.

Antonio Espingardeiro has been bringing robotic cats, seals and humanoid robots to a series of retirement homes in order to address the isolation and boredom often felt by their residents.

By programming his robots with a range of interactive games and activities, he’s not only entertained the elderly, but has also helped to bridge the gap between them and younger generations as the robots become a source of fascination and discussion during visits.

The project is part of his PhD, which is about the ethics of human and robot interaction. Antonio is particularly focused on the elderly because they can suffer from an ‘emotional deficit’ – not having enough interaction with younger people. According to his research these machines can provide cognitive assistance, supervision and entertainment which can be translated into an immense set of benefits for vulnerable groups.

He said: “The population of the UK is growing older and, as a result, a lot of people are being left isolated and lonely, even in the best care settings.”

Antonio has worked with over 74 people plus carers, relatives and managers in care and extra care facilities during 45-minute sessions stretching back eight months. During this period he has been able to record remarkable improvements in the happiness of the people he’s been working with.

“The robots are a novelty at first,” he said. “But they are also less threatening than entertainers or other people who come into homes to interact with people. And since you can programme them, I’ve been able to make sure that something different happens every week, so the visits never become stale.”

Antonio, who is studying at Salford Business School and the School of Computing Science & Engineering, is also conscious that his project isn’t just about ‘buying a robot for granny’, but a meaningful way of bringing generations together and improving everyone’s quality of life.

The research still has a year to run but Antonio believes his work is ahead of the rest of the world – even the Japanese with their rapidly aging population and advanced robots are only just starting down this path.

“Robots aren’t the only solution to this growing issue, but they can be a part of it,” Antonio concluded. “It might seem like a strange thing to be doing at first, but my results show how much of a difference this can make.”

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