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'Love robots' are moving into this B.C. seniors home

Kiwi and Mango will be spreading robotic love on the weekends.

Robots are being put to the test to see if they can prevent elderly people from being lonely and feeling isolated while in care. 

Kiwi and Mango are ‘Lovots,’ short for love robots, and they have arrived at the University of British Columbia all the way from Japan. 

Dr. Lillian Hung is an assistant professor at the UBC School of Nursing leading the research and will study how these ‘Lovots' interact with older adults and the cognitive challenges that arise. 

“Instead of having the robot doing things for the human, they are engaging the human to have passions,” she says.

These love robots do not speak back; instead, they talk in a robotic language and are similar to a pet without all the responsibility of owning a pet. 

"If you have a dog, you have to take the dog out and if the dog is sick, there's a lot of responsibility,” she says. "And that is sometimes hard to manage for an older adult.” 

This robot does everything on its own and just needs love and interaction. Even when its battery starts to die, it will return to its ‘nest’ where it docks and recharges. 

“The robot is there to engage humans,” says Hung. “It’s important for humans to give love.” 

Many of the people in care have lived a full life and want to give back. 

“It’s trying to get you to give love,” she says. 

The small robots offer big potential in the health-care sector as they can speak, learn, recognize faces and voices and can move around, similar to a pet. 

Both Kiwi and Mango will be tested at Amica in West Vancouver every weekend. When the robots are not at work, they’ll be housed at UBC. 

During this time, Hung will be observing and recording the interactions between the residents, care staff and the robots. Interviews will also be done with the care staff and the residents’ families. 

Hung, who has her own robot at her house, says they will want to see how people interact with the robot and if it can be useful for their life. 

“I think there’s a lot of benefit when we have an opportunity to give love,” she says. “It gives us a sense of joy when we have those kind of opportunities to do so."

First in Canada

The robotic pair did visit care homes and neighbourhood houses in the Vancouver region.

The response? ‘Strongly positive,’ according to UBC.

“They absolutely love it,” says Hung. “Their reaction is quite dramatic and it’s just so lovely to see them laugh and smile."

The robots are not just functional but they’re designed to respond to people and have unique personalities. 

“One is more of an introvert, the other one is more of an extrovert,” she says. “When you’re home, it is excited to see you and it comes to you and wants you to pet it."

Hung previously did research with a robotic seal and found the robot could be beneficial for people with dementia in long-term care. This robot provided emotional and social support. There was a lack of evidence on how the robots would be effective in hospitals with dementia or delirium.

“Having robots in people’s homes is still quite new to us,” she says. 

According to the university, this is the first pilot project of the love robots in Canada. 

Kiwi and Mango will start their work at Amica in September and UBC plans to share the results of the study to inform future directions in elder care. 

The robots will be in Canada until March, at which time they'll return back to Japan.