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St. Louis Study Finds Dogs and Robots Cheer Elderly

There is one confounding factor that no one seems to be noting; the robot is a dog-form. It may be a robot but since we...

Joy  |  Mar 1st 2008


sparkyandmarianbanks.jpg

There is one confounding factor that no one seems to be noting; the robot is a dog-form. It may be a robot but since we as humans are so visually-oriented there is not telling how much of the cheering up was caused by the fact the robot was in a form that has co-evolved with us for thousands of years.

Marketers have known for years that if you want to sell something, make it look like a dog. Check out the recent Valentine’s day promotion by Hallmark with the talking stuffed dog. And how many people have toy stuffed dogs?

If the researchers want to clarify their findings how about introducing a robot in a less friendly form? Maybe a boxon wheels?

Thanks to the Associated Press for this article.

Study Finds Dogs, Robots Cheer Elderly
By CHERYL WITTENAUER

ST. LOUIS (AP) Dogs may have a hard time wrapping their paws around this one: Robotic competition is nipping at their heels in the man’s-best-friend department. A study by Saint Louis University found that a lovable pooch named Sparky and a robotic dog, AIBO, were about equally effective at relieving the loneliness of nursing home residents and fostering attachments.

The study, which appears in the March issue of the Journal of The American Medical Directors Association, builds on previous findings by the researchers that frequent dog visits decreased loneliness of nursing home residents.

Andrew Ng, who leads Stanford University’s team in building a home-assistance robot and was not involved in the study, said the strength of the research is very encouraging.

If humans can feel an emotional bond with robots, even fairly simple ones, some day they could “not just be our assistants, but also our companions,” he said.

To test whether residents responded better to Sparky, a trained therapy dog, or the Sony-made robot dog, researchers divided 38 nursing home residents into three groups at a trio of long-term care facilities in St. Louis.

One group had weekly, 30-minute one-on-one visits with Sparky; another group had similar visits with AIBO; a control group did not visit with either dog. Their level of loneliness determined by residents’ answers to several questions was tested at the beginning and near the end of eight weeks of visits.

Investigator Marian Banks delivered the dogs, but did not interact with the residents. In the end, both groups were less lonely and more attached.

Most of the elderly used Sparky, a 9-year-old, reddish-brown mutt with a white muzzle and floppy ears, as a confidant, telling him “their life story,” Marian Banks said.

“He listened attentively, wagged his tail, and allowed them to pet him,” said Banks, who adopted and trained Sparky after finding him in an alley behind her home seven years ago.

Those who visited with AIBO took a little longer about a week to warm up to the metallic creature. Over time, they grew more comfortable with AIBO, and petted and talked to him. He responded by wagging his tail, vocalizing and blinking his lights.

“AIBO is charismatic if you start to interact with him,” said the study’s author, Dr. William Banks, a professor of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University. “He’s an engaging sort of guy.”

The research could mean that a world is possible where robots could substitute for living dogs and help people, William Banks said.

“They could be personal, not an intrusive crazy inanimate object,” he said.

Follow this link to read the rest of the article.