Imagine a cat that can keep a person company, doesn't need to be fed, doesn't need a litter box and can remind an aging relative to take her medicine or help find her eyeglasses.
Hasbro and scientists at Brown University have teamed up to make this furry robotic companion a reality. With a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation backing them, the research team is looking to add artificial intelligence to Hasbro's already existing "Joy for All" robotic cat.
Mary Derr, 93, talks to the robot cat she calls "Buddy" in her home in South Kingstown, RI.
The cat is designed for seniors and is meant to act as a “companion.” It purrs, meows, and can even "lick" its paw. It can even roll over to ask for a belly rub, which a real cat seldom ever does, unless they're trying to trick you with the Tummy Rub Trap!
Diane Feeney Mahoney, a professor at MGH Institute of Health Professions School of Nursing, has studied technology for seniors, says she hopes they involve people from the Alzheimer’s community and that “we just don’t want to push technology for technology’s sake.”
She noted that the cat tool that could make things easier for someone caring for a person with middle-stage dementia, or to be used in nursing homes where pets are not allowed.
They’ve given the project a name that gets at that idea: Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support, or ARIES.
While most of us cat lovers would say "Just go out and adopt a cat!", for some senior citizens, owning a cat is not a viable option. Some nursing homes or assisted living facilities do not allow pets.
Jeanne Elliott, in South Kingstown, says her 93-year-old mother, Mary, loves her robotic feline companion. Her mother has mild dementia and the Joy for All cat Elliott purchased this year has become a true companion for Mary, keeping her company and soothing her while Elliott is at work. Mary treats it like a real cat, even though she knows it has batteries.
In the end, they hope that by creating an interaction in which the human is needed, they could even help stem feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety.
“It’s not going to iron and wash dishes,” said Bertram Malle, a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown. “Nobody expects them to have a conversation. Nobody expects them to move around and fetch a newspaper. They’re really good at providing comfort.”
“The cat doesn’t do things on its own. It needs the human and the human gets something back,” Malle said. “That interaction is a huge step up. Loneliness and uselessness feelings are hugely problematic.”