Fuzzy, funny robot meets Weinberg Village residents in test case

Fuzzy, funny robot meets Weinberg Village residents in test case

Ruth Friedland and Romibo. (Chronicle photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Ruth Friedland and Romibo. (Chronicle photo by Toby Tabachnick)

The way Romibo sidled up to Ruth Friedland, purring and cooing, prompted the Weinberg Village resident to quip that the fuzzy, pink robot was “a big flirt.”

And Friedland smiled as she watched the blue robot “dance,” then engaged it in a brief conversation.

Friedland was one of a handful of ladies from the Weinberg Village personal care community to be part of a test group interacting with two Carnegie Mellon University robots that will eventually be used therapeutically by dementia patients and autistic children.

The robots are controlled by an iPad, which was easily used even by those residents who had never before worked a tablet computer, according to Enid Miller, a board member of the Jewish Association on Aging who is involved with the project.

This was the first round of testing for the robots, using as subjects older adults who do not have dementia in order to help iron out the kinks before Romibo will be introduced to the dementia patients.

“They are piloting it with the most alert group to get feedback, then will continue to tweak it,” said Miller.

Residents at the Jewish Association on Aging’s Weinberg Village were chosen as the test group for this project because of the JAA’s membership in the Quality of Life Technology Center, a collaborative effort between CMU and the University of Pittsburgh. The Quality of Life Technology Center focuses on “the development of intelligent systems that enable older adults and people with disabilities to live more independently,” according to its website.

“The robots were designed with autistic children in mind,” said Aubrey Shick, the design researcher and social roboticist who created Romibo. “But we haven’t been testing them with children yet because autistic children are sensitive to mistakes. We are starting with older adults.”

While an autistic child could be traumatized by a robot malfunction, senior citizens handle such glitches more calmly, said Shick, who noted that people call her “the mother of the robot.”

“Older adults are much more patient and understanding if the robot has a small malfunction, or when the battery starts to die,” she said. “These things are very upsetting for an autistic child, while an older adult will just say ‘it’s sleepy,’ or ‘it’s time to go.’ ”

The robots can be used in the same way that pets are used for therapy, Shick said. They can also be used for storytelling, to help with social skills, and to help with expressing emotion, she said.

“You can talk to and dance with a robot,” she said, adding that people confined in wheel chairs can also use the robots as proxies, making the robots dance, for example, when the people cannot.

The robots were well received at Weinberg.

“It went great,” said Shick. “Residents who had never used an iPad could pilot our robots with our interface. A couple of these residents started pushing buttons right away, and they were doing what they’re supposed to do.  They were really into it.”

The cost of the robot is about $600, a fraction of the cost of robots with comparable capabilities that are currently on the market for about $6,000, Shick said.

Similar robots have been shown to lower heart rate and increase mood.

“Residents with dementia who tend to act out are calmed by the robot,” she said. “I wanted to replicate and attain that with a lower cost robot that we will be able to give to facilities to use with their residents long term.”

The Weinberg ladies sitting around the table, playing, talking and “dancing” with the pink and blue Romibos were clearly having fun.

“Anything that’s lively makes the older people happier,” Friedland noted.

Shick plans to return to Weinberg before the end of the month to try out the robots with dementia patients.

“I hope it sparks life in these patients,” she said.

 (Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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