Wraf wraf

Today I’d like to share a story illustrating the importance of cognition and the way elderly look at technology. It’s a well-known comparison, but I believe it’s important enough to review. Furthermore, it involves dogs and cats, so if that’s not worth reading about, I don’t know what is.



Above, two robot companions are depicted: the iCat, a continuation of the iDog developped by Sega, and the Aibo, developped by Sony. Both of these have been the topic of numerous studies concerning human behaviour, two of which will be treated below (see References).

The iCat can be described as a smart companion dialogue system. It’s a device that offers  a plethora of options and systems, including facial and voice recognition. It has an array of facial expressions itself, ranging from happy to confused, and can offer information about the weather along with other topics. Furthermore, it can remember (and pronounce) your name, birthdays or anything else you want it to.
It’s easy to see why researchers believed the iCat to be a useful platform in the care for the elderly. the device can remind the user it’s time to take their medication, monitor the patient, … Unfortunately, the patients themselves had something else in mind. Some of them wanted to communicate with the iCat and a personal level, a function which it doesn’t support. It’s quite sad really to see a senior citizen trying to explain how many brothers and sisters he/she has, while the iCat keeps asking which music the patient prefers to listen to at the moment.  Other users regarded the cat as nothing more than a machine and kept on confusing it with questions it couldn’t answer or just ignoring it outright after a few minutes (after the novelty of hearing the iCat say your name wore off). The study concluded that the system could be valuable, but it’s essential to explain the function of the iCat to the patients. One can’t stop wondering though if a simple alarm clock wouldn’t be just as useful.

Another study, concerning the Aibo, tried to investigate this concept of companionship. The Aibo (Artificial Intelligence roBOt) is a robotic dog designed to imitate doglike behaviour. It can recognise some basic commands (like ‘sit’), likes to play with his ball and likes to be patted. Granted, later versions could dance and perform more advanced manoeuvres, but we’ll only consider the basic model in this post. Originally, it was marketed as a toy for children, but this study introduced another target audience.
This robot was also introduced to a number of senior citizens in an attempt to alleviate boredom and introduce a companion. Weirdly enough, it worked like a charm. Most of the elderly treated the Aibo as an intelligent creature and behaved appropriately. They were angry when the dog didn’t listen, sorry when they upset it and happy when it was prancing around the living room. Some patients were quite sad to see their beloved pet leave after the experiment was concluded. When these patients were asked if they would like to buy an Aibo of their own, they gave a negative answer, since it wouldn’t be the same dog they have now (!).

An entertaining collection of documentaries can be found here.

(1) M. Heerink, B. Kröse, B. Wielinga and V. Evers, “Human-Robot User Studies in Eldercare: Lessons Learned“, Amsterdam.
(2) A. Mahdi, A. A. Onaindia, N. Yang and Z. Zhan, “Design and Organization of Autonomous Systems”, Amsterdam.

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3 Responses to Wraf wraf

  1. jokewellens says:

    Before you start reading, you have to see the movie (unfortunately it is in Dutch):

    As you can see in the movie this device is not really designed for elderly. The builders have probably chosen the design of the iCat so that it brings technology closer to the people, by given it the shape of an animal. And with is speech-processing technology they wanted to make it social. But if we see the results we see that this is not ideal. As an engineer you know that artificial intelligence is not so easy, and that the designers have achieved quite a lot with the iCat. We don’t expect the Icat can answer all our questions. But most of the elderly do not know much about technology, so I understand their frustrations. Why can such a device starts talking to me about the weather, and asks me how I’m doing, can’t answer my questions? Of course the elderly are confused and think that this device doesn’t work well. Here another movie about the Icat (also in Dutch):

    An advantage is that learning to work with this device is easy for the elderly because off the speech-processing technology they don’t have to work with a lot of buttons. They say the iCat is social, but like the anchorwomen says a decent conversation is not possible.
    The designers did anticipate on a major issue: that older people were lonely for example by their decreasing mobility. It is not a bad idea for the designers to work on this aspect of loneliness of the elderly. But I think there have to pass some time before these things actually work well. It’s important that we as younger people pay attention to the elderly, because it’s still more pleasant to have a chat with family and friends than with a robot.

  2. Ingmar Van Eylen says:

    I think the iCat an the iabo are good initatives to get certainly elder people who are alone, out of their isolement. True, it’s not a real dog and true the iCat cannot conversate as a human being, but I think it’s already a start to get joy into the lives of lonely older people. They got again something to care for, to play with. Also because the robotic nature of the two initiatives, are there now strings attached. You can stop whenever you want, he doesn’t need to be walked out (because some elder people have problems walking). You can go on a holiday and leave him just in a closet at home. This list goes on and on. Also if you give a bunch of elder people who know eachother a aibo, they can talk about it and share information… So they have reasons to come togheter again! A social bonus, let’s say.

    So despite the fact that there are limitations, as a compangion the aibo and iCat are the base for something more to help lonely older people to a new “life partner” and a bigger social life.

  3. But yet again we have to be carefull. Giving your lonely elder an aibo, and then leaving him on his own for the rest of the year isn’t a good alternative to just going there more often. And thus we may never forget to think about a social factor these technologies may attend to. Luckely, as Ingmar said social interaction make come from a strange angle like being able to come together and talk about what each aibo has done the past time.

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