Scientists created a robot that can hold basic conversations, and a study discovered that when the robot is put in care homes, it improved the mental health of the residents. This is the robot "Pepper," the new robot to be put in UK care homes. (Image credit: Barchester)


At the University of Bedfordshire, a team of researchers led by Dr. Chris Papadopoulos conducted a study during which they introduced a programmable robot to residents of a few care homes. The team explained that their main goals were to help relieve the pressure care home workers experience due to lack of personnel as well as reduce the loneliness often experienced by residents of care homes due to the same issue of lack of staff. In addition to thanking them for their noble cause, we also need to realize that this experiment is another proof that in the near future, robots would become an integral part of our lives. For now, this new robot raises a few questions: how does it work? Is it safe for the residents? What about privacy issues? Will Pepper replace care workers?


To answer the question of whether robots will replace care workers, Care England, one of the leading providers of care homes, explains that robots cannot replace workers but would help the workers deepen their interactions with the residents of care homes. Some other experts also believe that if the robot can reduce loneliness in residence, it would reduce the pressure on the few workers that are available in the care home and maybe even increase workers’ job satisfaction. We can also imagine that in a situation like the pandemic, robots could help contain the spread of a pathogen. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK has experienced 18,000 deaths of residents in care homes, suspected to be a result of the virus. But even before the pandemic, the industry already had 120,000 vacancies while the workers that were available were already suffering from burnout. In sum, using robots might be a solution to fill the gap in the staffing of care homes.


Now, let’s look at the specifics of the study. The researchers conducted the study in both the UK and Japan’s care homes. Residents were exposed to the robot named Pepper for up to 18 hours in the course of two weeks and reported feeling a little less lonely, definitely not a huge improvement, but we can blame it on the short duration of the experiment. The robot was programmed using some of the residents’ data such as their interests and background, as well as cultural data that allowed Pepper to teach residents different languages, have conversations, play residents’ favorite songs, and even remind them to take their medications. If Pepper had flaws, they would be the “lightness” of the conversations it could have, its lack of personalization and in-depth cultural knowledge. Some residents also found Pepper’s movements a bit weird, which is understandable given that Pepper is a robot and most of us humans are not used to interacting with one. Besides those adjustable concerns, Pepper presented enough results for one of the UK’s leading dementia treatment centers to be considering embracing the technology in the hope of reducing anxiety and fill in the void between care sessions provided by the workers.


Despite all the positive points, Pepper is still a long way from being adopted everywhere since the cost of one robot, including the appropriate software, is evaluated at £19,000, only £1,000 more than the average care worker’s income. Researchers are working on possible cheaper alternatives. Besides, technology is still not fully adopted everywhere, and that too requires a little more time.


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