CNET spotlights ‘comfort companions’ and therapy robots

CNET, generally a home for all things whiz-bang and techy, is unusually but admirably spotlighting tech that assists the disabled and older adults. The latest in its Tech Enabled series focuses on robotics and AI-assisted comfort companions to help the sick–children undergoing medical treatment and adults with dementia. 

We’ve previously covered the PARO therapeutic seal, here in use with dementia, PTSD, and TBI residents in a VA Hospital in Livermore, California, It’s now in its 13th year of distribution and on its ninth release. Our prior criticism was only that it could benefit far more people if production were higher and prices were lower. 

Insurer AFLAC has developed with Sproutel the ‘My Special Aflac Duck’, designed for children undergoing treatment for cancer. The stuffed duck has a microphone, sensors, and pre-programming to respond to the child. The child can place discs on the duck’s stomach which are “feeler cards” which reflect moods from sad to happy. It can also be taken care of with ‘feeding’ and bathing (the furry cover is removable). AFLAC is donating the $200 cost of the therapy duck for a wider release this fall. Sproutel previously designed Jerry the Bear for children diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, where they learn to monitor blood sugar levels and give insulin shots to the bear via an AR phone app.

The writer and videos attest to the comfort and control patients feel with these comfort companions (and plus). Where articles like this in CNET contribute is in increasing general awareness that these are available here and now. One only wishes they and research on them were more widely available. 

PARO: The robotic therapy seal that benefits so few

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/paro1jpg.jpg.size-custom-crop.1086×0.jpg” thumb_width=”150″ /]I have a problem with that cute, robotic seal cub PARO.

More accurately, I have a problem with the ethics of the business model of the Japanese company that makes it, Intelligent System Co. Ltd.

PARO started development in 1993 and the first English press release was in 2004 – a year before Telehealth and Telecare Aware started! Since then the indications that PARO is good for people with dementia have been building and building, as Editor Donna most recently highlighted in this item: PARO therapy robot tested, cleared by NHS for — hygiene.

I have no problem believing, as Donna summarised, “the research has shown that it lowers stress and anxiety, promotes social interaction, facilitates emotional expression, and improves mood and speech fluency.”

However, in response to an enquiry last week, it was confirmed to me that neither price or delivery time information is available but that PARO seals continue to be made individually, by hand. This is a huge production bottleneck and cost.

It is entirely proper for a company that produces handmade cars to have high prices and long waiting lists for their rich man’s toys but I am completely at a loss to conjure up any justification to apply that thinking to PARO. (PARO cost $6,400 in 2017.)

I believe that the insistence that PARO continues to be made in this way is an unethical denial of a benefit to millions of people.

Does Intelligent System not have the will or the skill to scale up production and bring down the cost so that every care home or dementia ward could acquire a PARO (or even a ‘PARO lite’) within a few years? If not, they should license it to a company that can.

At least they should stop pretending that PARO is benefiting people with dementia when it reaches so few.

This Telehealth and Telecare Aware Soapbox item is the personal opinion of TTA founder and Editor Emeritus Steve Hards.

PARO therapy robot tested, cleared by NHS for — hygiene

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/PARO.jpg” thumb_width=”150″ /]PARO, the therapeutic robot seal developed in Japan by Professor Takanori Shibata for socialization use with geriatric dementia patients, is moving closer to being approved for use in the UK. It passed a cleaning and hygiene test conducted over nine months by Dr. Kathy Martyn, principal lecturer in the University’s School of Health Sciences, on a 10-bed dementia ward run by Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. The findings were that PARO was safe within the hospital setting for an acute care dementia unit.

TTA Editors have been covering PARO since 2010 (!) and despite the qualms in certain quarters [TTA 22 June 2010 ], unsurprisingly (to this Editor) the research has shown that it lowers stress and anxiety, promotes social interaction, facilitates emotional expression, and improves mood and speech fluency. Digital Health News (Picture from Toronto Star)

Japan’s workarounds for adult care shortage: robots, exoskeletons, sensors

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/robear.jpg” thumb_width=”150″ /]The problem of Japan’s aging population–the oldest worldwide with 32 percent aged 60+ (2013, RFE)–and shortage of care workers has led to a variety of ‘digital health solutions’ in the past few years, some of them smart, many of them gimmicky, expensive, or non-translatable to other cultures. There have been the comfort robot semi-toys (the PARO seal, the Chapit mouse), the humanoid exercise-leading robots (Palro), and IoT gizmos. Smarter are the functional robots which can transfer a patient to/from bed and wheelchair disguised as cuddly bears (Robear, developed by Riken and Sumitomo Riko) and Panasonic’s exoskeletons for lifting assistance.

Japan’s problem: how to support more older adults in homes with increasingly less care staff, and how to pay for it. The Financial Times quotes Japan government statistics that by 2025 there will be 2.5m skilled care workers but 380,000 more are needed. The working age population is shrinking by 1 percent per year and immigration to Japan is near-nonexistent. Japan is looking to technology to do more with fewer people, for instance transferring social contact or hard, dirty work to robots. The very real challenge is to produce and support the devices at a reasonable price for both domestic use and–where the real money is–export. 

The Abe government in 2012 budgeted ¥2.39bn ($21m) for development of nursing care robots, with the Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry tasked to find and subsidize 24 companies–not a lot of money and parceled out thinly. Five years later, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare determined that “deeper work is needed on machinery and software that can either replace human care workers or increase staff efficiency.” Even Panasonic concurred that robots cannot offset the loss of human carers on quality of services. At this point. Japan leads in robots under development with SoftBank’s Pepper and NAO, with Toshiba’s ChihiraAiko ‘geisha robot’ (Guardian) debuting at CES 2015 and Toyota’s ongoing work with their Human Support Robot (HSR)–a moving article on its use with US Army CWO Romy Camargo is here. (attribution correction and addition–Ed.)

The next generation of care aids by now has moved away from comfort pets to sensors and software that anticipate care needs. Projects under development include self-driving toilets (sic) that move to the patient; mattress sensor-supplied AI which can sense toileting needs (DFree) and other bed activity; improved ‘communication robots’ which understand and deploy stored knowledge. Japan’s businesses also realize the huge potential of the $16 trillion China market–if China doesn’t get there first–and other Asian countries such as Thailand, a favored retirement spot for well-off Japanese. In Japanese discussions, ‘aging in place’ seems to be absent as an alternative, perhaps due to small families.

But Japan must move quickly, more so than the leisurely pace so far. Already Thailand is pioneering smart cities with Intel and Dell [TTA 16 Aug 16] and remote patient monitoring with Western companies such as Philips [TTA 30 Aug]. There’s the US and Western Europe, but incumbents are plentiful and the bumpy health tech ride tends not to suit Japanese companies’ deliberate style. Can they seize the day?  Financial Times (PDF here if paywalled) Hat tip to reader Susanne Woodman of BRE (Photo: Robear) 

Your Friday robot fix: We need robot caregivers

I can, and do, write prescriptions for her many medical problems, but I have little to offer for the two conditions that dominate her days: loneliness and disability. She has a well-meaning, troubled daughter in a faraway state, a caregiver who comes twice a week, a friend who checks in on her periodically, and she gets regular calls from volunteers with the Friendship Line.

It’s not enough. Like most older adults, she doesn’t want to be “locked up in one of those homes.” What she needs is someone who is always there, who can help with everyday tasks, who will listen and smile.

What she needs is a robot caregiver.

—Louise Aronson, MD

From a medical practitioner and geriatrician is a view on robots as not dehumanizing, but a source of companionship, comfort and ‘always on’ emergency assistance for older adults and the disabled, particularly those who live alone. Dr Aronson also advocates assistance robots for everyday tasks such as bed transfer, lifting and dressing assistance. Mentioned favorably: PARO the Japanese ‘seal’ robot, MOBISERV Kompaï, Sweden’s GiraffPlus but notable by omission GrandCare Systems, the GeriJoy tablet-as-pet companion and (perhaps too new) the JIBO ‘family robot companion’ [TTA 18 July]. She also makes the apt point that those of us who’ve spent most of our adult lives interacting with machines will be quite comfortable with robotic companions. The Future of Robot Caregivers (New York Times) Also Katy Fike PhD from the Aging 2.0 group takes a look in their blog at Dr Aronson’s insights as well as JIBO.