Robots come to life in Walsall

For many, robots in the domestic setting are still a product of science fiction. But for the residents of a Housing 21 extra care housing scheme in Walsall, the robotic age isn’t so far away.

As part of a trial looking at the ethics of the development and use of social robots, a PhD student from the University of Salford designed a series of activities involving robots and older people at Alrewych Court in Aldridge. Using a mixture of humanoid robots, robotic seals, mobile robotic webcams and virtual environments, student Antonio Espingardeiro observed and interviewed the elderly groups, their carers and their families during the course of a two month trial.

The humanoid robot, which can be programmed to perform, entertained the residents by telling jokes, playing songs and dancing. The robotic seals, on the other hand, help to recreate the benefits associated with pet therapy. The residents were so taken with the life-like reactions of these robots that they were very reluctant to give them back.

John Genders, aged 75, is a day service user at Alrewych Court. He said: “The  residents really loved the seals and would like to have kept them. They held them and loved them because they were so life-like.

“I think in the future robots will be an asset to elderly and disabled people, in terms of fetching things, picking things up off the floor, entertaining and playing music - especially to people who live on their own.”

Antonio demonstrated Rovio, a small robot than can act as ‘Skype on wheels’ to allow people to remotely control it and talk with each other. During the trial the residents also had the opportunity, via a Microsoft Kinect system, to interact in a virtual world of petting animals, playing a game of bowling or stacking boxes.

Antonio Espingardeiro said: "One of the main objectives of this study is also to understand a little bit more about the human nature. These set of activities using robotics and virtual environments open new opportunities when recreating spaces between generations, which we believe are beneficial for both. Because of the dynamics I apply to the sessions, I have noticed that the residents, relatives and staff become much more communicative and active. I must say that whilst we analyse the ethics behind it, that it is without doubt an extraordinary experience.”

The aim of the trial was to demonstrate the potential for using robots to interact and entertain older people as well as understanding the ethical boundaries around their use.

Rachel Dutton, Research Manager for Housing 21 added: “This has been a very exciting as well as unusual project, and one that the residents enjoyed immensely. The findings will help inform future development of robotics and their use in the health and social care sector through highlighting important ethical implications and considerations as determined by the older people themselves.”