Ro­bot at French nurs­ing home gives glimpse of fu­ture


Zora may not look like much – more cute toy than fu­tur­is­tic marvel – but this ro­bot is at the cen­ter of an ex­per­i­ment in France to change care for el­derly pa­tients.

When Zora ar­rived at a nurs­ing fa­cil­ity an hour out­side Paris, a strange thing be­gan hap­pen­ing: Many pa­tients devel­oped an emo­tional at­tach­ment, treat­ing it like a baby, hold­ing and coo­ing, giv­ing it kisses on the head.

Zora, which can cost up to $18,000, of­fered com­pan­ion­ship in a place where life can be lonely. Fam­i­lies can visit only so much, and staff mem­bers are stretched.

Pa­tients at the hos­pi­tal, called Jouarre, have de­men­tia and other con­di­tions that re­quire roundthe-clock care.

The nurse at Jouarre who over­sees Zora con­trols the ro­bot from a lap­top. He of­ten stands out of view so pa­tients don’t know it’s him at the con­trols.

The ro­bot can have a con­ver­sa­tion be­cause the nurse types words into a lap­top for the ro­bot to speak. Some pa­tients re­fer to Zora as “she,” oth­ers “he.”

Zora of­ten leads ex­er­cises and plays games.

Not ev­ery­one is en­am­ored.

Robotics still has a long way to go be­fore there’s a re­al­is­tic chance of hav­ing a hu­manoid nurse.

Zora doesn’t dis­pense medicine, take blood pres­sure or change bedsheets. At Jouarre, Zora was viewed by some as a su­per­flu­ous tool that just “keeps the pa­tients busy,” ac­cord­ing to a nurse, So­phie Rif­fault.

An­other nurse, Nathalie Racine, said she wouldn’t let a ro­bot feed pa­tients even if it could. Hu­mans shouldn’t del­e­gate such in­ti­mate mo­ments to ma­chines. “Noth­ing will ever re­place the hu­man touch, the hu­man warmth our pa­tients need,” she said.

The ex­pe­ri­ence at Jouarre pro­vides a win­dow into a fu­ture when we will rely more on ro­bots to help care for loved ones as they age.

Zora Bots, the Bel­gium­based provider of the ro­bot at Jouarre, says it has sold over 1,000 of the ro­bots to health care fa­cil­i­ties around the world, in­clud­ing in the United States, Asia and Mid­dle East. It is part of a grow­ing em­pha­sis on robotics fo­cused on care. A ro­bot dog made by Sony has been mar­keted as a com­pan­ion for older adults.

“We need to help with lone­li­ness,” said Tommy De­blieck, the co-chief ex­ec­u­tive of Zorabots.

Giv­ing ro­bots more re­spon­si­bil­ity to care for peo­ple in the twi­light of their lives may seem like a dystopian prospect, but many see it as an in­evitabil­ity.

In nearly ev­ery coun­try, the pop­u­la­tion of older adults is ris­ing. The num­ber of peo­ple over 60 will more than dou­ble to 2.1 bil­lion by 2050, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions.

The fig­ures point to an emerg­ing gap. There sim­ply won’t be enough peo­ple for the re­quired health care jobs. Pro­po­nents ar­gue new tech­nol­ogy must be cre­ated to help fill the void.

The chal­lenge is par­tic­u­larly acute in France, where hos­pi­tals have been fac­ing a na­tional cri­sis, with health care pro­fes­sion­als strik­ing and protest­ing bud­get cuts and staff short­ages. A rise of sui­cides of nurses and doc­tors has made na­tional head­lines, and France’s health min­is­ter ac­knowl­edged that the hos­pi­tal sys­tem was “run­ning out of steam.”

The chal­lenge will be cre­at­ing ma­chines ca­pa­ble of do­ing more com­plex jobs. Lift­ing a pa­tient’s mood with a song is dif­fer­ent from pro­vid­ing health care. The French hos­pi­tal, which bought the ro­bot with the help of a char­i­ta­ble grant, brings out Zora just a few times a month.

In Aus­tralia, a hos­pi­tal us­ing a Zora ro­bot stud­ied the ef­fects on pa­tients and staff. The re­searchers found that it im­proved the mood of some pa­tients, and got them more in­volved in ac­tiv­i­ties, but re­quired sig­nif­i­cant tech­ni­cal sup­port.

Pa­tients have told the ro­bot things about their health they wouldn’t share with doc­tors.


Zora is at the heart of an ex­per­i­ment in France to ease the lone­li­ness felt by nurs­ing home pa­tients.

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