February 28, 2008
Study Shows Robotic Dog Same as Real Thing
It has long been known that pets can provide health benefits to their owners. However, scientists at Saint Louis University in Missouri have now discovered that these rewards come regardless of whether the pet is real or robot.
The researchers performed a study comparing how a robotic dog named AIBO affected patients in three U.S. nursing homes compared to a 35-pound, floppy-eared real dog named Sparky.
"The most surprising thing is they worked almost equally well in terms of alleviating loneliness and causing residents to form attachments," said Dr. William Banks, a professor of geriatric medicine who worked on the study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association.
"The most surprising thing is they worked almost equally well in terms of alleviating loneliness and causing residents to form attachments," said Dr. William Banks, a professor of geriatric medicine who worked on the study, in a telephone interview with Reuters.
Banks said pets have been shown to help older people feel less isolated. "It really improves loneliness considerably," he explained.
However many elderly people are too frail or ill to care for a pet or have had to give up their own animals when they went to the nursing home. "They really miss that bond," said Banks.
So Banks and his colleagues decided to see if a robotic dog might offer some comfort.
The researchers divided the 38 study participants into three groups. One received routine visits from Banks' pet dog Sparky, another received visits from the AIBO, the robotic dog that uses artificial intelligence to interact with its environment and express emotion. The third group did not receive visits from either dog.
Banks said he had been sure Sparky would have the edge, but surprisingly, both dogs provided virtually equal comfort after seven weeks of visits.
While AIBO has since been discontinued, Banks thinks similar robots could offer companionship for senior citizens and might even be programmed to keep tabs on their owners, alerting emergency workers of a sudden fall or other situations in which they may require assistance.
"Loneliness is common in nursing homes. Robots may be very useful for people who cannot for whatever reason have access to a living dog," Banks said.
On the Net:
Saint Louis University
Journal of the American Medical Directors Association