Robotic Companion Animal Comforts Dementia Sufferers

Scientific American

Click here to listen to this podcast

In the 2012 movie Robot & Frank, an elderly man suffering from dementia is given an artificially intelligent robot to help him survive on his own as his condition worsens. [Movie audio: "My program's goal is to improve your health."]

The movie's scenario may be here soon. A team of international researchers recently found that a therapeutic robot companion improved the quality of life for a small group of people with mid- to late-stage dementia.

In the real-life case, the robotic companion was made to look like a harp seal. It was fitted with AI software and tactile sensors that enabled it to respond to touch and sound. The robot could express surprise, happiness or anger and even respond to certain words. Patients who spent time with the robot seemed happier and less anxious. [Wendy Moyle et al., Exploring the Effect of Companion Robots on Emotional Expression in Older Adults with Dementia: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial, in Journal of Gerontological Nursing]

In fact, the robotic seal offered patients a similar comforting presence as real animals do when introduced to patients living in extended-care facilities. Except the patients didn’t have to feed the fake seal Arctic Cod or clean up after it.

Frank would approve.

[Movie audio: “I need him.” “What do you need him for?” “He’s my friend.”]

—Larry Greenemeier

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

Follow Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs.

Visit ScientificAmerican.com for the latest in science, health and technology news.

© 2013 ScientificAmerican.com. All rights reserved.

View Comments (7)