In care homes in Britain and Japan, Pepper, a “culturally competent robot,” was tested and those who interacted with it for up to 18 hours over the course of two weeks “saw a significant improvement in their mental health,” researchers found.
Pepper was part of a study known as CARESSES, it was jointly funded by the European Union and the Japanese government, which investigated the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in caring for the elderly.
The study found that “after two weeks of using the system there was a small but positive impact on loneliness severity among users.”
Pepper is fully autonomous, meaning it is not controlled by a person. The gadget features a tablet computer that can play music and entertainment, does not just ask and answer questions but can actually engage in and sustain a conversation. It has been designed to be “culturally competent,” which means that it can respond to the culture-specific needs and preferences of older people.
“The results show that using the CARESSES artificial intelligence in robots such as Pepper has real potential benefit to a world that is witnessing more people living longer with fewer people to look after them,” Papadopoulos said in an online statement.
“Poor mental health and loneliness are significant health concerns and we have demonstrated that robots can help alleviate these.”
Dr. Chris Papadopoulos, principal lecturer in public health at the UK’s University of Bedfordshire, was the lead author of the evaluation of the three-year project.
The University of Bedfordshire, Middlesex University, and Advinia Health Care are the UK partners of the study, coordinated by the University of Genova in Italy, which developed the Pepper’s AI. Global researchers collaborated on the project with the robotics company SoftBank Robotics.
“When we kicked off the project it was clear that loneliness in older adults was a really big problem that is increasing all the time and one that we were keen to tackle,” Papadopoulos said in a CNN report. “Social care is incredibly stretched and we have an aging society.”
“Of course we could never have predicted how relevant this issue has become today, where we have enforced isolation in many care homes and selective isolation for many others which has resulted in feelings of loneliness,” he said.
“Our system really couldn’t have come at a better time to try and reduce some of those issues.”
When asked if Pepper could offer real help to the millions of older people still unable to see their friends and family for fear of contagion, he said:
“The project we developed has now rigorously demonstrated that the system we developed could and did improve mental health and wellbeing and reduce loneliness. However, it is just at a prototype level and there were many technical limitations.”
Papadopoulos estimated it would take a further two to three years of research, commercial development, and funding before robots such as Pepper could actually be introduced to care homes.
“We really believe that this isn’t about replacing care, a robot can’t do what a human can do. But they can be a useful supplementary tool to help stimulate people’s mental health,” he said.