The robot is positioned on a table and demonstrates different exercises, which the residents then try to mimic. A human instructor is present too, and provides individual instruction to anyone needing extra attention.
The chief executive of the nursing home, Tinie Kardol, happens to also be a professor of gerontology at the Free University Brussels. One of his students tipped him off to Zora the robot. Kardol saw an opportunity to improve his own operation and introduced it a year ago.
By then the Belgian makers of Zora had been tinkering on the robot for three years. The QBMT software developers first bought a Nao robot from Aldebaran, a French company, imagining they’d configure it to work as a hotel clerk. Instead they have found a market in health care. First a Belgian hospital inquired about using a robot to demonstrate exercises to children rehabilitating from surgeries.
Kardol says now over 6,000 elderly people are in direct contact with a humanoid robot in Belgium, France and the Netherlands. One program lets Belgian children at school chat with the elderly by typing on computers in their classrooms. The robot, located in nursing homes miles away, speaks the text. Its eyes light up green as a cue that it’s the senior citizens’ turn to talk.
The Zora robot is also being used in hospitals and one psychiatric institution.
“A lot of elderly people are actually feeling alone. Solitude is something which is horrible for the moment for a lot of elderly people,” said Fabrice Goffin, one of Zora’s creators. “People don’t have all the time to visit their families and they can find some kind of relationship with the robot and that is a nice thing to do.”
At Kardol’s nursing home, the robot spends most of its time in a common area. It reads out weather forecasts and news articles. It’s programmed so that a staff member can type instructions for what to say on a computer.
In some cases, the robot has been able to accomplish what humans can’t. Kardol told me of one resident who hadn’t spoken in four months. One day late last year she was sitting in the common area next to her son. The staff used the robot to address her by name and ask how she was doing.
“I’m well,” she blurted out, surprising everyone in attendance. They then carried on a brief conversation. Interactions like that have motivated Kardol as a researcher to investigate why the robot can trigger positive reactions from those who struggle to communicate.
To others, the appearance of robots in nursing homes might be a sad commentary on how we treat the elderly. Will we all one day let our loved ones be entertained by machines, while we go about our busy lives? And will robots ever replace the humans in nursing homes, once they can do the job at a lower price?
Kardol is adamant that Zora isn’t replacing the role of human contact, or humans’ jobs at his retirement home. But as robots inevitably become more capable, and more retirement homes consider using them, it remains to be seen exactly what role robots will play.