The pandemic has exacerbated the isolation and loneliness of the elderly and rekindled interest in corporate robots. However, manufacturers are trying to mitigate the expectations of those looking for humanoids with increasingly interactive animated wheels and plush toys.
“The pandemic was an accelerator for us, it is almost our raison d’etre today!” Says Antoine Bataille, creator of Cutii, a mobile screen robot that was presented for the second time at the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas in 2021. The great electronics and technology event that started on Monday (11 am) in virtual format.
With Cutii, users can participate in remote activities (games, fitness classes, etc.) and speak to loved ones via video conferencing that can be accessed by voice command.
It can be updated remotely and equipped with help or security functions to warn of problems.
The company launched its robots in France in 2020 in around 30 nursing homes. The Cutii were intended for sale to private individuals, but the restriction changed plans.
“We manage to be isolated in the collective,” says the head of the French startup, which is looking for partners to conquer the American market.
The company now better understands the needs of companions working in nursing homes. Cutii can distract them while they are clean, which can make things easier for the team, for example.
Today’s robotics experts are capable of stunts: Articulated robots from Boston Dynamics are causing a sensation with their choreography on YouTube, while researchers from Cornell University are working on microscopic robots that examine the human body from the inside and can move through tissue and blood vessels.
However, corporate robots must overcome psychological rather than technological barriers.
“The more dependent people are or the more difficulties they have, the more they appreciate it,” emphasizes Bataille. “People with Alzheimer’s accept the robot very well. Those who are more alert are less interested.”
This large-scale experience led Cutii to evolve to meet more needs.
“Anything is possible,” explains the founder of Cutii. “But the most important thing is to be able to communicate with the family and to do activities that bring them closer to other people.”
In times of masked and distant people, robots are paradoxically seen as a way to make certain interactions warmer.
“It’s nicer than a tablet,” said Tim Enwall, director of Misty Robotics, a programmable robot that can be a receptionist, companion, or home assistant.
With the pandemic, “business demand for reliable, contactless tools that are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week has increased,” he says.
“But robots are not yet able to manage hundreds of different things like humans,” he explains. “For example, it can lead to frustration if the device responds to a hearing impaired person with” I’m sorry, I didn’t understand “.”
At CES 2020, the Japanese robot company Lovot moved the crowd with their big owl eyes, their teddy bear look and their nice reactions when they are petted or spoken to.
It is only used to show affection. Like Paro, a Japanese, seal-shaped therapy robot has been used to care for patients with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease for more than fifteen years.
“If an older person suffers from senility, it can be that they have difficulties communicating and can no longer look after an animal,” says Barbara Klein, professor at the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences. The robot for comfort takes the place of a dog or a cat, but “non-binding,” he explains.
Klein also points out that it allows “taking care of someone rather than being the one who is constantly being looked after”.
However, acceptance varies greatly from person to person. Ultra-realistic robots like purring plush cats can be annoying.
“Some senile patients may be very disappointed to overestimate the capabilities of the robot,” argues Stefanie Baisch, psychology researcher at the University of Siegen and specialist in company robots.
There are people who are afraid of looking strange to others while taking care of them.
Therefore, it is the caregiver’s responsibility to ensure that the device remains, above all, a “facilitator that facilitates human interactions,” the researcher concludes.