Independent living and assisted living communities are serving as testing grounds as University of Texas at Arlington researchers try to develop robots that humans can trust and respond to as companions and caregivers. Researchers hope the efforts meet resident needs and help operators address labor challenges.

Members of the university’s new Emotional Robotics Living Lab recently conducted a $20,000 study of how residents of a Brookdale Senior Living community in Arlington, TX, interacted with robots using well-known sonnets from Shakespeare. After three weeks of interactions, they observed a significant drop in depression and an increase in human-robot social engagement.

“The idea here is not to replace humans but to fill a gap,” said Julienne Greer, Ph.D., an assistant professor of theater arts and director of the lab.

More research is planned. The new lab will feature two robots, NAO and Pepper, from SoftBank Robotics.

In a related project, Noelle Fields, MSW, Ph.D., an assistant professors in the university’s School of Social Work, is conducting a $10,000 study of whether theater interventions with robots also can have positive effects on older adults who have dementia or cognitive decline and live in assisted living communities. UTA declined to share the names of the participating communities with McKnight’s Senior Living.

“Our hope is that these different studies could show that our Shakespeare robot intervention can have a general positive therapeutic effect on older adults and provide new tools for those working with them to reduce depression and increase engagement,” Fields said.

Brown, Hasbro team up in $1 million project

Meanwhile, researchers at Brown University in Providence, RI, have teamed up with Hasbro to design a smart robotic companion capable of assisting older adults with everyday tasks.

The university investigators will aim to add artificial intelligence capabilities to Hasbro’s current Joy for All companion pets, animatronic dogs and cats designed to provide interactive companionship, comfort and joy for senior living residents and others. They hope to test a prototype with target users by the end of the three-year, $1 million project.

The project name, ARIES, stands for Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support.

“The ‘A’ in ARIES stands for ‘affordable,’ and that’s something we’re taking very seriously,” said Michael Littman, Ph.D., a professor of computer science at Brown and co-principal investigator on the grant. “This is one of the important reasons Hasbro is a great industry partner for this project. The current Joy for All pets cost roughly $100, while similar robotic products can cost $5,000 to $6,000. We want the ARIES robot to be available to anyone who needs it.”

The researchers’ goal is to develop additional capabilities for the ARIES companions to help older adults, especially those who may have mild dementia, find lost objects, remember to take their medication and carry out similar tasks. The work is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

“We know that caring for an aging population will be a tremendous challenge in the coming years, and we think technologies like ARIES could play a small but potentially important role in helping people meet that challenge,” said Bertram Malle, Ph.D., a professor in Brown’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences; co-director of Brown’s Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative and the principal investigator on the grant.