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Are robots the future for looking after elderly people in care homes?

Are robots the future for looking after elderly people in care homes?
18th May 2018

Robots could soon become a common sight in care homes across the country, as a new EU-funded trial scheme looks to take the strain off over-burdened carers. From September, a number of humanoid robots will be rolled out to see if they can fulfil the needs of residents, or whether the human touch is really necessary.

The £2.5 million initiative will involve four-foot robots, known as Pepper, which are programmed to interpret the needs of the elderly and can tailor their conversation depending on the circumstances. It is being overseen by researchers at the University of Bedfordshire.

A wide range of responsibilities will be given over to the robots, from helping the elderly contact relatives to reminding them to take medication. A tablet inserted into the machine’s chest will help to achieve this and will be pre-programmed by carers.

Dr Chris Papadopoulos, a public health expert from the university, highlighted the fact that the idea is not to replace carers. Instead, it is to help alleviate some of the pressures and provide companionship to lonely people when those that look after them do not have the time to sit with them and chat.

Not everyone is enamoured with the idea, with some charities and support groups worrying that it will treat the elderly like commodities. They believe that human interaction cannot be replicated by robots and a different solution should be sought.

Judy Downey from the Relatives and Residents Association told the Express: “The key to looking after someone is having a relationship in which you might notice if someone is upset after a phone call or if they look unwell. What matters is the smile, the human touch.”

The developers behind Pepper say the robots can understand up to 80 per cent of conversations in English and Japanese. The groundbreaking software could well evolve in the coming years and become even better suited to helping to care for the elderly.

In the meantime, the experiment is the first of its kind to see if there is the potential for humanoids to relieve stress and improve the quality of life for residents in care homes. It is hoped that they could lead to more independent living in the long run.

Pepper robots have been specifically designed to be expressive and react to human emotions. They are equipped with cameras and sensors to carry out this function, but have been built in such a way that they fit into a human environment.