Service robotics for the aid of senior citizens – user-oriented joint development is the key

Picture: Kari Välimäki
Picture: Kari Välimäki

The accelerating development of service robotics has raised expectations and hopes that robotics could be utilised to support the elderly in independent living at home and renew care and welfare services. Three VTT projects of 2.5 million euros  are creating a vision of robotics and other intelligent technology helping the elderly to live at their homes and community homes healthy and hale for longer, and how the work of a nurse will change in 20 to 30 years.

Sceptical attitudes towards care robotics are acknowledged, but practical trials and studies show increasing interest. The elderly are unlikely to shun robotics technology if it helps them manage everyday chores on their own, makes them feel safe, and keeps them in touch with social networks and participation in the community. Nurses will also be happy to utilise robotics that give them extra strength to perform their work that is physically strenuous, constantly changing, and demands problem-solving, negotiation and clinical assessments. User-oriented co-development is key for feasible and acceptable robotics applications.

A toy or a service robot for someone with a memory disorder?

Today’s service robotics are still far from a real integration in the everyday lives of the elderly or the use of nurses. Network connections stutter, speech recognition stumbles, movement is cumbersome, and perception of objects and space is challenging.

As surprising as it is, the world’s most commercially successful care robot is probably the robot seal Paro, developed for the therapy of people with memory disorders. Some of the elderly truly find meaning in petting an interactive seal – for those with memory disorders, feeling good at the very moment is important, and that Paro can offer. For the nurses, Paro offers the means of indulging oneself in a shared experience and gentle interaction with the elderly. Paro enriches the quality of life and interaction of people with memory disorders, and alleviates anxiety and restlessness. Although many consider the Paro to be a toy, it is a genuinely user-oriented robot designed for a purpose, although its adoption will be significantly reduced by its high price of thousands of euros.

Service robotics will revolutionise both everyday and working lives

As technological components and software improve and prices decrease, more and more versatile robotics consumer applications are to be expected for everyday use, caretaking and other service industries. The expectations of the health and care services are high for robotics applications, exoskeletons, “power arms” and lifting & carrying robots that provide physical support and strength. In Japan, the promised land of robotics, the renting of these kinds of applications to care facilities and home care is becoming an everyday commercial occurance.

Various monitoring, alarm and safety solutions are being developed to support living at home for the elderly. Sensors could be installed throughout the home, thus securing the welfare of the elderly, but would it be more pleasant if the “guardian” were a robot, a visible object, that could also help perform small chores, bring and take things, and act as a game partner or a newsreader, for example?

Nao the service robot
Nao the service robot

Socially interacting robots are peculiar in that people begin to grow fond of them. As the speech interface develops and the interaction becomes more multifaceted, particularly with regard to reading and showing non-verbal communication, expressions, gestures and emotional reactions, it is likely that people will begin to feel some kind of social connection to their robots. This development is perplexing the researchers, as it is difficult to anticipate whether this would lead to a reduction in human contact. In the case of the elderly, this is even considered to be a human rights issue.

Some researchers consider it to be unethical to allow the elderly to become attached to a robot that is, however, unable to reciprocate those feelings or be aware of them – a robot is incapable of genuine empathy that arises from similar experience between two human individuals, who do not even need to know each other beforehand. True, a robot can appear to be able to do this, and this is sufficient for many, as socialising with a robot is perceived to be pleasant and useful. One must remember, however, that the individual wills of different personalities and the crises and growth arising from the difficulty of fitting them together form a key element in interaction between humans. Do we wish to fully control our robot, eliminating the growth in the interaction that brings psychological satisfaction – for which there are also social and communal needs – or do we give the robot a will of its own? This question may come up if robots with advanced interaction abilities are allowed to enter our everyday lives in an uncontrolled manner.

Service robotics will revolutionise the everyday and working lives, first following the models familiar from the industry as tools that make work and tasks more efficient and automated, but later as increasingly equal working partners and, finally, as part of a socially reorganised working life. The duties and job descriptions at work will change. It is impossible to say what role robotics will play in  society even after just ten years, but if we wish to have any influence in it, we should start considering the matter now. Robotics, the Internet of Things, big data and other radical technologies will create opportunities of reinventing the everyday life, welfare services and the working life.

However, these technologies will not integrate with the reinvention of welfare services on their own; the technologies and services must be developed together. VTT’s ace in the hole in the development of service robotics and the promotion of its adoption is its strong, user-oriented and responsible research methodology, and joint development with the interested parties from a technology into acceptable and effective solutions.

Marketta Niemelä

Senior Scientist



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