Feeling lonely? How about a companion robot?

Mario, the robot, can read you a book, play music and remind you to take medication

Two challenges of healthy ageing – loneliness and isolation – and the numbers of people living with dementia prompted a Galway team of researchers to look at addressing the challenges using robots.

The team at the school of nursing and midwifery, National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG), led by Prof Dympna Casey, is leading a European project called Mario, which is looking at how carer service robots can advance active and healthy ageing.

The researchers are developing a companion robot which can read you a book, play music or remind you to take medication among other tasks.

The Mario project is funded by the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. It assembles a team of international experts from academia, industry and dementia groups to work collaboratively in tackling the burdens imposed by dementia and developing innovative solutions using caring robots.

“We are focusing on companion robots rather than helping robots,” says Casey. “From our interviews with people with dementia we are looking at function including prompting and reminding, finding lost things, connecting online to family and friends, and alleviating boredom through games or news updates.”

The effects of dementia, loneliness and isolation are also a cause of problems in care-giving, and are a serious test of the support systems in place throughout our society, especially for personal carers, whether they are family members or based at institutions.

Casey believes “companion robots will provide personal carers with help for assessment activities, keeping people engaged, and alerting to the need for help. Robots can also monitor physical and mental wellbeing or deterioration,” she says.

For many, such a technological shift might sound surreal, and it can take time for alternative notions to settle in at a society level, with stigmas likely to develop, as is the case with many new technologies.

Yet history shows us that technological developments like this gradually become more widespread, and are eventually accepted, becoming new norms.

Communications manager on the Mario project, Prof Kathy Murphy, says, "Before I became involved in the project I would have considered myself unsure about how robots might help people with dementia, but after interviewing people with the condition, who really believe Mario can help them, I am positive that this technology can do something truly important."

Like most state-of-the-art technologies, ethical questions are raised. Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku discusses how future societies, including our homes, will become increasingly smart, integrating the internet and other technologies with our products and acquired services.

These advancements provide both encouragement and challenges for a better future, and ethical concerns around robots – especially those working with our beloved – are even more complex.

Data storage

“The issues of privacy are important. Robots can collect a range of data through cameras and monitoring, and problems related to data storage and use need to be addressed quickly,” says Casey.

As for whether robots might increase unemployment among personal carers, Casey says, “We don’t think companion robots will reduce the need for healthcare workers, rather they will complement their abilities.”

Ultimately, while not disregarding important ethical considerations, these researchers believe the positives outweigh concerns, and that companion robots are an especially good idea in the absence of human company. “We see Mario as helping people live well for longer,” saysMurphy.

Conor Purcell PhD is a science writer.@ClimateGuruNet

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