Robot exercise coach for the elderly: 5 other robotic helpers that make ageing easier

Want a carer with inexhaustible stamina and a permanent smile? The elderly are turning to robots to help them in their silver years.

A robot named Xuan will act as an exercise coach for the 40 senior citizens who frequent the Lions Befrienders Senior Activity Centre at Mei Ling Street, but the Ngee Ann Polytechnic creation isn't the only digital companion helping out the elderly. We look at some others: 

Eric the robo-dog

-- PHOTOS: ST FILE

This is the Elderly Rehabilitative Interactive Companion, but you can call it Eric. The robotic dog, believed to be Singapore's first robo-canine designed for the elderly, leads exercise routines at the Ling Kwang Home for Senior Citizens.

Equipped with visual sensors that allow it to react to the movements of others, Eric helps make repetitive therapy exercises less boring for the elderly, and frees up nurses to attend to other tasks.

The Singapore Polytechnic team behind Eric found that the seniors were more engaged when the robot was around, and a Straits Times reporter heard cries of “Is the class over already?” and “When can I have a dog?” after one exercise class with Eric.

Pepper the humanoid robot

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A humanoid robot that can read human emotions and learn from its interactions with people - that's what Pepper, set to be released by Japanese telecommunications company SoftBank in February, is said to be.

It is hoped that Pepper can help ease labour shortages in one of the world's fastest ageing societies, but right now, a fleet of Peppers is helping to sell SoftBank mobile phones and Nespresso coffee machines across Japan.

With sparkling lines like "Do you want to know how to earn some extra money? I will give you 10,000 yen to take my place in the shop. It's an easy job.", who wouldn't want a Pepper livening up their silver years?

Asimo the mobile helper

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It can walk, run and go up and down stairs. It can open a bottle, serve a drink and shake your hand. No, it's not the world's most useful pet - meet humanoid robot Asimo, designed to help people with reduced mobility.

Honda's 1.3m-tall little astronaut, whose name is short for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, has been around for a while. The first model was revealed in 2000 after 14 years of research into human movement, and Asimo has come on leaps and bounds since (pun intended). The latest model, unveiled last April, has increased flexibility and balance, and can even jump.

Researchers think that Asimo can help the elderly by fetching a snack when they have difficulty moving around. 

Huggler the pet robot

-- PHOTO: ST FILE

Here's another one from the robot pets drawer. This cute stuffed monkey isn't just a simple toy. It can laugh, grunt and whine depending on where it's touched, and Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) researchers hope to use it as an alternative to pet therapy to improve quality of life for the elderly.

A prototype Huggler - easily the most adorable name on this list - was deployed at the St Luke's ElderCare centre in Hougang in August 2013. A patron said she preferred it to a real dog because it doesn't bite, and the Huggler reportedly helped quiet individuals open up.

Its inventor, A*Star Robotic Senses group leader Tan Yeow Kee, even believes it can become a tool to diagnose mental condition like dementia by monitoring changing patterns of interaction with the user.

Thought-controlled robotic suits

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Here's something that looks straight out of the future. Japanese robot-maker Cyberdyne makes suits that users can control just by thinking.

The company's power-assisted robotic suits, limbs and joints help the elderly get around and even lift heavy objects. They detect weak electrical pulses that run through the skin when the wearer's brain sends the message to the limb to move.

The robot parts then move in the same way the real limb would, only with more power than the limb could exert on its own. Here's a frightening thought - your grandmother could soon beat you in an arm wrestling contest.

Sources: The Straits Times, AFP, Reuters

dshea@sph.com.sg