Often used for surgical assistance, robots are making their way into medical clinics, too. Though it may be tempting to envision these devices as merely structures of wire and steel, think again: In some clinical settings, robots are covered in fur and even bark.
If you’re familiar with the film The Stepford Wives, you may recall the pet, Robo Dog 3000. That robotic dog and similar creations have influenced the development of new and increasingly more realistic and sophisticated robot toys, often designed for children. Many of these innovative robots have taken on the form of dogs, cats, and rabbits–child-friendly critters that are possibly equally beloved by adults.
Manufacturers are driven by the goal to create robots with a tremendous degree of realism. These aren’t the waddling, battery-operated $10 toys of past decades. They are complex robotic creations that simulate the existence of an animal like a dog, and they’re not only finding their way into luxury toy stores—they have an important therapeutic function to play in the treatment of certain health conditions. Though it may seem like robotic pets are still a thing of the future, that future is already here and helping people who suffer from serious medical conditions.
Robot Toys Advance
Simple battery-operated children’s toys have been popularly produced since the middle of the last century. Most people have seen mass-produced toys with their plastic parts and “batteries not included” labels at major chain toy stores and big box stores. In fact, these simple toys continue to sell well for their intended audience: young children.
Over the years, though, manufacturers with the help of robotics and software engineers have worked to advance simple toys that mimic animals. Driven by the increased realism of video games, robot creators have borrowed futuristic concepts and transformed them into reality. And their uses aren’t merely for play.
Increasingly, medical and science communities have embraced clinical uses for, specifically, robot dogs. In fact, even the military has developed its own robot dogs in the form of Diesel, an animatronic dog used to help train medics to care for live military working dogs and their handlers. Researchers from MIT, Boston Dynamics, and partnering organizations are testing robot dogs that take the vital signs of patients, specifically highly contagious patients diagnosed with COVID-19. But these “dogs” still retain the look of a robot.
Robot Dogs for Therapy
A new breed of robot dogs is now making its way into treatment and therapy for diseases that impact cognitive function like Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Pet therapy involving the use of real animals has also increased in use to treat many different mental health conditions ranging from depression to post traumatic stress disorders. However, there is a high degree of expense and care associated with maintaining living pets.
Patients suffering from dementia-type disorders and their caregivers can find it difficult to care for therapy animals. Robotic dogs, however, are easy to care for and they appear to offer some level of therapeutic value for patients.
How Do Robot Dogs for Therapy Work?
There are different types of robot dogs; some are more sophisticated than others. In the basic sense, these robots resemble dogs. They’re designed with fur, tails, paws, and other features that mimic the look of a small lap dog. The dogs also have animatronic features and sensors. For instance, if they sense the movement of the patient, they may blink, wag their tail, or make gentle sounds.
Do Robot Therapy Pets Work?
In clinical studies, robot dogs and pets have been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety levels in patients suffering from dementia. How well do they work? In one clinical trial, researchers found that they could reduce the use of both pain and psychoactive medications in a group of elderly patients being treated for dementia. The robot pet, referred to as “PARO,” provide a demonstrable therapeutic benefit when it engaged with test patients.
A study in the journal Issues in Mental Health Nursing found that incredibly realistic robot cats helped reduce feelings of loneliness, isolation, and stress levels. The robot cats helped reduce feelings of social isolation. In light of the recent pandemic when patients were isolated and unable to interact with family and friends while under care in medical facilities, these robot cats and other animatronic pets may signify greater therapeutic value.
When isolated, dementia patients can pet or hug the pets, which have many lifelike qualities. They purr and move. Their fur feels like cat fur. The result is that patients feel calmer and less stressed. They’re able to spend their days in greater comfort, which has a benefit for the patients, of course, but also for their families who can’t be with them 24/7. The robots can–and they don’t need feeding, walking, or grooming.
Should You Get One?
If you have a family member who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, you might not readily value the notion that a “moving stuffed animal” can offer any therapeutic help. However, studies suggest otherwise. And, remember, there are different types of robot dogs and cats available. Some are so hyper-realistic that family members of patients might not readily identify the animals as robots.
One robot dog, known as “Tombot,” was developed with 16 motors and has multiple movements. It has the ability to respond to touch and voice. It can even sense between gentle and vigorous touching. Tombot’s ears lift. Its tail wags. It brings a lifelike level of interaction to the laps of patients who are otherwise unable to care for a live pet any longer.
Today, there is a wide selection of robot animals, many of which are marketed specifically for patients living with dementia. Prices and ‘abilities’ vary, but for families searching for anything to bring comfort for their loved ones, these robots have promise based on clinical findings.
Benefits of Robot Pets
Of course, the chief disadvantage of these robot pets is that they aren’t the real thing–the warm, loving, spontaneous, live-action animal. However, as families know, the real thing isn’t always suitable in situations where patients are declining in both mental and physical health.
The chief advantage of robot pets is that they are not living breathing beings. Patients can’t accidentally injure a living pet. They can’t forget to feed it or let it out for exercise and to relieve itself. Even in situations where dementia patients are cared for at home, the responsibility of caring for pets as well becomes difficult. Caring for a living pet in a clinical setting or hospital–impossible. Robot pets are welcome in those clinical settings where, alas, living dogs and cats are generally not.
Exciting Uses for Modern Technology
Many clinicians are excited about the trend of robots in medical settings. They’re able to see firsthand how patients become more relaxed when seated beside their robot dog or cat. The smile that even a robot dog can bring to someone who has been sitting for hours in pain and forgetful of their own children’s names is something that studies can’t precisely measure but that is still palpable to anyone witnessing it.
Patients feel happier when they have a robot pet to hold, and, the purpose of technology is to make our lives easier. Robots like Tombot show that this is true even in situations no one may have imagined 50 years ago when these simple battery-operated toys were first sold to the public.
Look for more studies on this topic as the use of robot pets in dementia therapy and other medical conditions advances.