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My robot friend: People find real comfort in artificial companionship

The staff used to wonder if Thomas was still "in there." The man, now 82, had lived for two years in the old-age home in Brisbane, Australia, along with other residents who suffered from advanced dementia. He hadn't spoken to a soul, and eventually, the staff stopped talking to him, too. But when Thomas met Paro, a seal-shaped robot, things changed.

When researchers brought the fluffy, big-eyed, touch-sensitive Paro to Thomas, his face lit up. He held it like a baby and stroked it and looked surprised as it nuzzled into his neck. When the staff told Thomas it was time for Paro to go home, he looked at the robot in his hands and spoke aloud for the first time: "Goodbye, Paro."

Elderly adults have a new best friend: robots. Researchers who study the relationship between robots and humans are discovering that some models make better companions than pets. And though today's elderly didn't grow up clutching a smartphone, they're optimistic about having robot helpers around the house — especially if it means more independence for them.

In this combination picture, a therapeutic robot named Paro opens its eyes as it reacts to an elderly user's hand at the Suisyoen retirement home, ab...
Paro opens its eyes as it reacts to an elderly user's hand at the Suisyoen retirement home in Iwaki, Fukushima prefecture, July 28, 2011.Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

"You tend to forget it's actually a robot — it's so interactive," Wendy Moyle, a researcher at Australia's Griffith University, who will present her study of the elderly adults at a conference in June, told NBC News. The staff at the nursing homes she's tested the Paro at? They've all wanted to keep the robot.

Over in New Zealand, another group of researchers conducted a larger randomized control trial comparing people's interaction with Paro to how they respond to a real live dog.

"People spoke to the robot more than the dog and touched the robot more than the dog," Elizabeth Broadbent, a senior lecturer in psychological medicine at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, told NBC News.

Broadbent also watched 40 elderly adults interact with Paro over 12 weeks, and found that they became less lonely. "They enjoy petting the robot and cuddling with the robot," Broadbent said, "And asking them 'How are you today?' and 'Are you hungry?'" Beyond that, Paro stimulated social behavior in general: People tended to speak to each other more when the robot was in the room.

Robot abuse
Humans have a measurable emotional response to robots, as evidenced by a recent brain-scan study. Out in Germany, test subjects were shown videos of robots being hurt, followed by videos showing violence to human beings. fMRI showed that the viewers' brains responded similarly to each, and also responded similarly when robots and humans were shown affection.

Back in 2007, a group in the Netherlands crafted a devious experiment: After a robot cat helped participants win a game, they ordered the players to shut off the cat. Only, when they went to do it, the cat would plead with them not to. If the cat wasn't much help during the game, the shut-off switch went down easily. But if the cat seemed smart, and helpful during the game, participants found it very hard to power it down.

Though that experiment addressed people's reaction to robotic intelligence, the fact that the thing looked like a cat may also explain its stay of execution, just like Paro's harp seal form helps it win hearts. What a robot looks like does affect how people relate to it, say researchers.

Human(oid) beings
PR2 is a humanoid helper bot currently being sized up by researchers at Georgia Tech. Though it's been spotted flipping pancakes, in trials it's been tasked with dispensing medicine, turning on and off lights, and performing other butler-like duties.

Elderly adults who participated in the study tended to respond to PR2 as if it were a person. "When the robot handed [an] older adult the medicine bottle, the older adults tended to say thank you," Wendy Rogers, a professor of psychology who led the study, told NBC News.

Georgia Tech researchers asked elderly adults how they felt about robots like PR2 fetching and handing over medicine bottles.
A robot named GATSBII — for GATech Service Bot with Interactive Intelligence — delivers medication to Mr. Bolet on a fall day in September 2011. Georgia Tech researchers found that elderly adults were comfortable with robots fetching and handing them their medicine bottles.Keith Bujak

And looks did matter. When it came to chores around the house, some adults told Rogers and her team that they didn't mind if a robot looked boxy and mechanical. But "there was a preference for human-looking robots for tasks requiring more intelligence," she said, like handling medicine bottles.

The subjects did note however, that they were more comfortable with a human making a decision of which medicine to take. In a series of interviews with 21 adults with an average age of 80 in the U.S., Rogers found that folks were happy to have help with the laundry and housekeeping and reminders to take their pills. But, they said, they preferred a human touch to help them bathe or dress or brush their hair.

Because of this, it's a mistake to think that robots will replace humans completely as caregivers, but their role is likely to expand dramatically in the coming decades. "Older adults are so open to these ideas, that's what takes me so optimistic," said Rogers, which is good news considering that by 2050, 89 million adults in the U.S. will be over 65, and a fifth of those will be over 85.

The biggest benefits that robots could stand to give the elderly: they'll be left with more choice, more independence ... and less loneliness.

And as studies with Paro the harp seal show, this is something that robots seem to be particularly good at fixing. "We know that we don't have enough [human] resources for older people," Broadbent said. "There's loneliness … companion robots seem to be able to help with that."

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.