Ro­bots to the res­cue

Study finds dogs and ro­bots help pre­vent de­pres­sion in el­derly

The Covington News - - Health & Wellness - By Ch­eryl Wittenauer

ST. LOUIS — Dogs may have a hard time wrap­ping their paws around this one: Ro­botic com­pe­ti­tion is nip­ping at their heels in the man’s-best-friend de­part­ment.

A study by Saint Louis Univer­sity found that a lov­able pooch named Sparky and a ro­botic dog, AIBO, were about equally ef­fec­tive at re­liev­ing the lone­li­ness of nurs­ing home res­i­dents and fos­ter­ing at­tach­ments.

The study, which ap­pears in the March is­sue of the Jour­nal of The Amer­i­can Med­i­cal Direc­tors As­so­ci­a­tion, builds on pre­vi­ous find­ings by the re­searchers that fre­quent dog vis­its de­creased lone­li­ness of nurs­ing home res­i­dents.

Andrew Ng, who leads Stan­ford Univer­sity’s team in build­ing a home- as­sis­tance ro­bot and was not in­volved in the study, said the strength of the re­search is very en­cour­ag­ing.

If hu­mans can feel an emo­tional bond with ro­bots, even fairly sim­ple ones, some day they could “not just be our as­sis­tants, but also our com­pan­ions,” he said.

To test whether res­i­dents re­sponded bet­ter to Sparky, a trained ther­apy dog, or the Sony- made ro­bot dog, re­searchers di­vided 38 nurs­ing home res­i­dents into three groups at a trio of long-term care fa­cil­i­ties in St. Louis.

One group had weekly, 30minute one-on-one vis­its with Sparky; an­other group had sim­i­lar vis­its with AIBO; a con­trol group did not visit with ei­ther dog. Their level of lone­li­ness — de­ter­mined by res­i­dents’ an­swers to sev­eral ques­tions — was tested at the be­gin­ning and near the end of eight weeks of vis­its.

In­ves­ti­ga­tor Mar­ian Banks de­liv­ered the dogs, but did not in­ter­act with the res­i­dents. In the end, both groups were less lonely and more at­tached.

Most of the el­derly used Sparky, a 9-year-old, red­dish­brown mutt with a white muz­zle and floppy ears, as a con­fi­dant, telling him “their life story,” Mar­ian Banks said.

“ He lis­tened at­ten­tively, wagged his tail, and al­lowed them to pet him,” said Banks, who adopted and trained Sparky af­ter find­ing him in an al­ley be­hind her home seven years ago.

Those who vis­ited with AIBO took a lit­tle longer — about a week — to warm up to the metal­lic crea­ture. Over time, they grew more com­fort­able with AIBO, and pet­ted and talked to him. He re­sponded by wag­ging his tail, vo­cal­iz­ing and blink­ing his lights.

“AIBO is charis­matic if you start to in­ter­act with him,” said the study’s au­thor, Dr. William Banks, a pro­fes­sor of geri­atric medicine at Saint Louis Univer­sity. “He’s an en­gag­ing sort of guy.”

The re­search could mean that a world is pos­si­ble where ro­bots could sub­sti­tute for liv­ing dogs and help peo­ple, William Banks said.

“They could be per­sonal, not an in­tru­sive crazy inan­i­mate ob­ject,” he said.

Sara Kiesler, pro­fes­sor of com­puter science and hu­man­com­puter in­ter­ac­tion at Carnegie Mellon Univer­sity who was not in­volved in the study, said the re­sults of the study are en­cour­ag­ing but not com­pletely con­vinc­ing.

The prob­lem is in­fer­ring it was the ro­botic dog that re­duced the lone­li­ness, and not the hu­man who brought him into the room, she said. She said an­other study could com­pare a visit from AIBO with some­one stop­ping by with a stuffed an­i­mal or even just a candy bar.

Sub­mit­ted photo

Wel­come to the world of to­mor­row: A re­cent study found that ro­bot dogs such as ABIO can help pre­vent de­pres­sion in the el­derly.

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