US scientists are developing a cat that can keep a person company, does not need a litter box and can remind an ageing owner to take their medicine or help find their spectacles.
Toymaker Hasbro and scientists at Brown University in Rhode Island have received a three-year, million-dollar (£750,000) grant from the National Science Foundation to find ways to add artificial intelligence to Hasbro’s Joy For All robotic cat .
The robo-cat, which has been on the market for two years, is aimed at the elderly and is meant to act as a companion. It purrs and meows, and even appears to lick its paw and roll over to ask for a belly rub.
The Brown-Hasbro project is aimed at developing additional capabilities for the cat to help older adults with simple tasks.
Researchers at Brown’s Humanity-Centred Robotics Initiative are working to determine which tasks make the most sense, and which can help older adults stay in their own homes longer, such as finding lost objects, or reminding the owner to call someone or go to a doctor’s appointment.
"It’s not going to iron and wash dishes," said Bertram Malle, a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown.
"Nobody expects them to have a conversation. Nobody expects them to move around and fetch a newspaper. They’re really good at providing comfort."
Prof Malle said he and computer science professor Michael Littman do not want to make overblown promises of what the cat can do, they just hope to make a cat that would perform a small set of tasks very well.
They also want to keep it affordable, just a few hundred dollars. The current version costs 100 dollars (£75).
They have given the project a name that gets at that idea: Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support, or Aries.
The team includes researchers from Brown’s medical school, area hospitals and a designer at the University of Cincinnati.
It is an idea that has appeal to Jeanne Elliott, whose 93-year-old mother, Mary Derr, lives with her in South Kingstown, Rhode Island.
Ms Derr has mild dementia and the Joy For All cat Ms Elliott purchased this year has become a true companion for Ms Derr, keeping her company and soothing her while Ms Elliott is at work.
Ms Derr treats it like a real cat, even though she knows it has batteries.
"Mom has a tendency to forget things," she said, adding that a cat reminding her "we don’t have any appointments today, take your meds, be careful when you walk, things like that, be safe, reassuring things, to have that available during the day would be awesome".
Diane Feeney Mahoney, a professor emerita at MGH Institute of Health Professions School of Nursing, who has studied technology for older people, said the project showed promise because of the team of researchers.
She hopes they involve people from the Alzheimer’s community and that "we just don’t want to push technology for technology’s sake".
She called the cat a tool that could make things easier for someone caring for a person with middle-stage dementia, or to be used in nursing homes where pets are not allowed.