Why Robots are the Way to the Future, Especially for the Elderly

July 28, 2017


SAN FRANCISCO — Paro closes its watery eyes, tilts its head and emits a soft cry. The robotic harp seal — the world’s best-known therapeutic robot — is the creation of Japanese scientist Takanori Shibata, but its voice is made in Canada. Shibata recorded the baby harp seal, which became the voice of Paro, on Quebec’s Magdalen Islands.

“It’s a Canadian seal,” said Shibata, who showed off his cuddly creation at the world’s largest gathering of experts in the field of aging this week in San Francisco.

Paro, now used to help dementia patients and others in 30 countries around the world, is a huggable face of the high-tech future of aging.

The burgeoning field is known as gerontechnology, and Canada is poised to play a leading role.

Paro, which has been used in Japan and through Europe since 2003, has helped demonstrate that technology can be used and embraced in previously-unheard-of ways for elder care. The robot seal, which responds to touch and makes eye contact, has been found to reduce patient and caregiver stress, to stimulate interaction between patients and caregivers and to improve the socialization of patients. It has also been found to reduce the need for medication in some cases.

It’s not all as warm and fuzzy as Paro, but technology — from smart homes, to health monitoring devices, to virtual reality therapy, to autonomous transportation, to technological advancements not yet dreamed of — are all part of the future of aging, according to experts.

Held on the edge of Silicon Valley, the World Congress of Gerontology and Geriatrics, devoted an entire day this week to technology, a first for the gathering. It came complete with a “startup alley” and pitch competition designed to bring the worlds of academia and startups together. Among pitches: a virtual reality program designed to bring a little bit of the outdoors to the institution-bound elderly.

Technological advances have made many new aging technologies possible, said William Kearns, president of the International Society for Gerontechnology. Robots have a particular appeal.

“A robot can be a far more persuasive way to get a person to behave in a certain way — such as exercising — than an iPad or a cellphone.”

Canada’s federally funded aging and technology network, AGE-WELL (Aging Gracefully across Environments using Technology to Support Wellness, Engagement and Long Life), helped organize the event.

Andrew Sixsmith, scientific director of AGE-WELL, said Canada is becoming a world leader in the field.

“The Canadian government has had the foresight to invest in this sector because they realize there is an aging population and we need solutions that are going to address the challenges and the opportunities that brings,” he said.

“We are very keen in terms of the real-world impact of what we want to do, but also to demonstrate to the rest of the world that Canada can take a lead in this. I think Canada has put a lot of effort and investment into this and, down the line, that is going to pay off in terms of how it can benefit Canadian research, Canadian older people, the Canadian economy, but also benefit the rest of the world as well.”

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