The Playful Potential of Robots

How do people with dementia respond to robots? Sabina Misoch, Head of the Interdisciplinary Competence Centre for Ageing, discussed this question with the professor Toshimitsu Hamada and his team of researchers from Tsukuba University, one of Japan’s best universities. Professor Hamada is considered a pioneer in the field of research into robot-assisted therapy in nursing homes.

Lea Müller, Sabina Misoch

Since the late 1990s, Toshimitsu Hamada has been conducting research into therapeutic uses for robots in nursing homes, especially among people with dementia. It started with the famous Sony robot dog AIBO, which first hit the shelves in Japan and the rest of the world in 1999.

Today, all kinds of therapy robots are in use – from the PARO seal through to humanoid robots. But they all have the same objective: to activate people in nursing homes in an emotive way, to encourage communication or movement, and to thereby increase their subjective well-being.

Evoking emotions

During a meeting between the two in Tokyo, Toshimitsu Hamada showed Sabina Misoch video footage from his studies, in which animal robots are used to activate people with moderate to severe dementia living in old people’s homes. Hamada mostly used different models of the AIBO robot dog in his research, as well as Palro (a robot not known in Switzerland), NAO, the robotic cat NeCoRo, and PARO.

«It is very impressive how robots are being used to activate people suffering from dementia», says Sabina Misoch. For example, a race was organised between the robot dogs, in which the dogs had to catch a pink ball. «I was very touched by the look of joy on the faces of the participants, who each had their ‹own› dog competing in the race», she says. Sabina Misoch believes this playful use of robots harbours a great deal of potential for the work with dementia sufferers.

She also finds it interesting that robot-assisted therapy in Japanese nursing homes is not actually as uncontroversial and widely accepted as one might think. According to Professor Hamada, nursing staff in Japan also fear losing their jobs if robotic systems become more commonplace. However, he alleviates these fears in the same breath, stressing that instructors are always needed whenever a therapeutic robot is used.

The robot seems more popular than the instructor

«It’s quite impressive to see how simple gymnastics exercises demonstrated by a humanoid robot and supervised by an instructor can encourage people with dementia to participate themselves», says Sabina Misoch. Robots that sing songs together with dementia sufferers are particularly popular in Japanese nursing homes.

According to Misoch, several different models are used here, including robots that look like a 30- to 40-cm tall rag doll. What makes them so popular is that they start to sing when you pick them up in both hands. Hamada says they have such a wide repertoire of songs that you never know which one is next.

Hamada’s studies show that many people suffering from dementia can be activated by different robots. He emphasised that, in the field of dementia in particular, the mental and social aspect of care should not be underestimated. Hamada finished off by saying that the use of robots is not yet widespread in Japanese retirement homes, mainly due to the cost barriers and because issues concerning the options for controlling the robots have not yet been clarified. Even in Japan, use of these robotic solutions is still at an experimental stage.