And the EU-funded Enrichme project dispatched Tiago robots built by Spain’s Pal Robotics into the homes of elderly people. The large, squinting droids trundled after their charges, reminded them of appointments and medication schedules, ran through fitness routines and sought out mislaid items. But their companionship was rated as highly as their ability to track down lost keys. When the experiment ended, residents mourned the loss of their new friends, with one seen rearranging their furniture to fill in the empty space left by the droid.
Antonio Kung is CEO of Trialogue, an innovation technology company based in France. In 2016, he headed a three-year project to develop robots in conjunction with elderly people. The two models were Buddy, a cutesy “emotional companion” the size of a dog, and Astro, a sturdy walking assistant almost as big as an arcade cabinet.
The project visited care homes and spoke to residents about how the robots could better suit their needs. “We wanted to know, can we capture feedback from the users and provide a system that is closer to what they expect?” says Kung. “Surprisingly enough, there’s not much done right now on that.”
Kung’s research also hinted at the limits of what can be achieved with technology. While feedback on Astro was prosaic – the robot was too big, they said – Buddy was a different matter. “They wanted features that a human has – to understand them better, to be smoother, to have a voice conversation that works well,” says Kung. “They wanted it to be more human.”
At the end of the day, there is only so much social isolation that a robot can alleviate. These have their place as facilitators, says Kung, but at their core they are still toys, albeit useful ones. In his opinion, the breakthrough robot for elder care will likely arrive as an offshoot of a more mainstream product – one that’s good enough that everyone wants one.