The robots are coming ... actually the robots are already here and 13 of them are living at Selwyn Retirement Village in Auckland.
However, with their big round eyes, soft white fur and helpless baby seal cry, these PARO seal robots are more cute and fluffy than cold and metal. Despite their good looks, underneath all that fur they still contain two 32-bit RISC processors, custom actuators, sound, light, temperature, and touch sensors as well as enough artificial intelligence to learn their own name and adapt to repeating actions that result in petting and avoiding actions associated with being hit.
An interactive therapeutic robot, the Food and Drug Administration have categorised them as a class II medical device along with X-ray machines and powered wheelchairs. These robot seals have been specifically designed to stimulate patients with dementia, Alzheimer's and other cognition disorders and are showing promising results.
Designed to bring out nurturing behaviour, patient improvements are similar to those seen with real therapy animals but without the complications and allergy risks a real pet would bring. Studies have shown that after interaction with a therapy robot like PARO, residential care residents showed reduced heart rates and blood pressure.
When the robot was placed in the centre of a room, residents became more social with each other and more co-operative with their healthcare providers. Those patients diagnosed with dementia who interacted with the robot were less agitated, wandered off less, showed reduced levels of anxiety and depression and communicated better with their carers.
The rise of the robots is an important one for us Kiwis to think about, as our over-65 population will increase from 11 per cent in 1991 to an expected 21 per cent by 2031.
How we support our ageing population needs to be well planned if we are to invest in technologies to cope with this changing demographic. By 2026, an estimated 78,000 of us will have dementia increasing by 60 per cent from 2011 and bringing with it an increase in the need for medication, residential care facilities and healthcare staff. Professor Bruce Macdonald at the University of Auckland is one of the researchers studying how robots in New Zealand could be used as helpful assistants for older people and their caregivers, including those at Selwyn Village.
While not everyone is enthusiastic about having technology take an active role in caring for the sick and elderly, financially it's a good investment. At $7000 per robot, the cost is still high, but Ollie the baby otter robot, an MIT student-built competitor, is priced at just a few hundred dollars - indicating we are about to enter a price-competitive robot marketplace.
When you factor in reducing people's agitation and anxiety, improving their quality of life and mood, and possibly reducing their medication use, the financial investment may not seem so steep, and we are going to have to meet the increasing demands for elderly care somehow.
Dementia and elderly patients are just one segment where therapeutic robots are making a difference. A humanoid-like robot that sings songs on request, plays word games and listens to pupils reading stories has shown to improve communication and social interaction in children with autism spectrum disorder, while a simple Lego-based robot has been used to help children suffering from anxiety and phobias.
With the Oxford English dictionary defining a robot as a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer, then we are already surrounded by washing machine and vacuum cleaning "robots".
Perhaps 10 years from now, owning an interactive robot baby seal will become just as normal.