Japanese robot could be a constant companion for vulnerable adults

A robot from Japan is being heralded as the the latest breakthrough for dementia sufferers. Margaret Jennings talks to a UCD professor who wants its inventors to introduce it here

HIS memory is failing, edging into full-blown dementia, so Frank’s son gives him the gift of a robot butler to help him in his home. But Frank, a retired (sort of) jewel thief, has other ideas for Robot’s role.

The 2012 science fiction movie, called Robot and Frank, offers a poignant yet comic commentary on what might not be such an outrageous futuristic scenario soon in Ireland: using companion robots to help our ever growing population of older people.

Just recently, a Japanese communication robot, called Sota, who ‘talks’ with dementia patients and reminds them to do some basic self-management, was introduced to the attendance at the 65th Jubilee Annual and Scientific Meeting of the Irish Gerontological Society. Sota asks people questions, listens to their answers, and reacts accordingly.

Dr Nao Kodate, assistant professor in social policy at UCD, invited its developers, NTT Data in Japan, to bring the robot outside the country for the first time.

“I wanted to bring Sota to Ireland to see how he functions — how robots could be part of the integrative system of health care, which many advanced countries are trying to introduce,” he tells Feelgood.

“I’m aware that people probably have some psychological resistance to using robots and bringing them into care, that it might be depriving people on both sides - carers and people who receive care — of human touch, so I wanted to give people the opportunity to look; I think it’s an important process.”

Kodate, who is researching the cultural side — people’s attitude towards robotics — aided care, feels it could take Ireland another 10 years to get there. “People need to warm up to accepting how useful they could be. But the Irish health system needs radical reform and if we are really talking about integrated care, then we should start looking at this assisted technology, especially with the rapid growth in older people.”

It’s a perspective that has been embraced at NUI Galway for the past three years where MARIO, a companion robot to reduce loneliness and isolation for people with dementia, has been the star of a project due to be completed in January, funded by the EU Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.

“We know from people with dementia that loneliness is a real problem and we recognise their need for companionship. So we put together a consortium of international experts including from the health care sector, robotics, industry and dementia groups to work collaboratively to develop a companion robot for people with dementia,” says Dympna Casey, professor of nursing at NUIG.

MARIO has been developed and tested across three pilot sites, including with 20 people with dementia in two nursing homes in Galway and Roscommon, as well as in a community setting in Stockport, Britain and in a hospital setting in Italy.

“Health services tend to focus on physical health despite the fact that we know that social health and social connectedness is important to the quality of life of people with dementia,” Casey tells Feelgood.

“Currently if a person lives on their own and doesn’t need physical care, then there is no mechanism to provide social health, and this leads to loneliness and isolation and its negative consequences.”

MARIO as a companion robot has a number of applications which can be individualised and tailored to meet the specific needs of a person including: My Music; My Chat: My Family and Friends, My Memories My Calendar, My News, and My Games.

But both Casey and Kodate see assisted technology such as Sota and MARIO as complementary to care provided by humans, not a replacement.

“I believe companion robots will be more readily available and more commonly seen in health care settings and in people’s homes in the near future,” says Casey. “That being said there is a real concern that robots like MARIO will replace human carers, but we don’t see this happening any time soon. MARIO’s only function is to be a companion; he does not have the technological ability to implement care or decide on the best course of treatment for a person.”

Both academics believe assistive technologies will become more mainstream for older people, not just for people with dementia. Having said that, we are still decades away from getting one – like Frank – from our children.

“It’s difficult to give a precise projection as to when a companion robot like MARIO will be in general use,” says Casey. “However, assistive technologies are advancing at increasing speeds.”

Kodate estimates we may have robots in our own homes here, in perhaps 20 years, as demographics change quite rapidly; 20.2% of the Irish population are expected to be over 65 by 2040. The robot’s cost and user friendliness would be big influences.

For instance, MARIO, when it’s mass produced, is estimated to cost around €10,000. “This might be considered expensive,” says Casey. “However, taking into account the cost of formal and informal care, MARIO may be a less costly viable alternative and it would potentially be in operation for nine hours each day.”

Find out more about MARIO at www.mario-project.eu



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