Knowing a loved one is lonely can be hard to take.
Especially when you can’t give them much of your time.
If only there was someone who could provide additional companionship.
Enter iPal, a social robot designed by the company AvatarMind. Its function is to act as a companion to those who need one most.
“We’ve done a number of shows over the past six months, and a very common comment I get is, ‘I have an elderly parent at home, but I have to work for a living, so a big portion of the time they are home alone with no one to talk to,’” John Ostrem, chief executive officer of AvatarMind, told Healthline.
Ostrem says iPal is perfect for older adults because it can help them keep track of everyday activities, such as taking their medication, as well as provide alerts for medical emergencies, such as falling down.
The robot is also a source of entertainment.
“If the elder likes 1940s music, iPal can be set to play it. They can talk to it like a person too,” said Ostrem. “It’s not a replacement for a human, but I think it’s a reasonable way to improve the lives of people who don’t have access to a community or are stuck in their home.”
A range of emotions
iPal was originally designed to be a friend for children.
The robot talks like a child who is 4 to 8 years of age. It also has 25 motors that allow it to make humanlike movements.
It remembers the preferences and interests of the child. It can also dance, tell stories, play games, and provide educational information.
The robot even taps into what a child is feeling with built-in sensors that enable it to touch and listen to speech.
Its emotion management system senses and responds to happiness, depression, and loneliness. It can act happy when the child is happy and encouraging when the child is sad.
While similar robots are on the market, Ostrem says they cost anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000. iPal costs $1,500.
“The goal from the beginning was to create an affordable robot that not only institutions could afford but also families. The idea is that you can adapt iPal to different situations like elder care facilities, for children with special needs, such as autism, or in retail environments, such as hotels or stores where the iPal could be a greeter,” said Ostrem.
The first robots were designed for China. They will be shipped there this winter.
“In China there are a lot of one-child families, and so many children don’t grow up with a companion,” said Ostrem. “Parents in China are interested in education and giving their children a head start in school, so we thought that for ordinary families in China this could be a device that entertains the child when the parents are busy, and also provides education.”
AvatarMind plans for iPal to hit the United States the middle of this year. A few are already present at Mineta San Jose International Airport in California.
“We set up an iPal playground in the airport so travelers can play with the robots. We hope to do the same thing in some malls,” Ostrem said.
What about human connection?
Can robots like the iPal help people who are lonely?
Dr. Amy Banks, psychiatrist, and author of “Wired to Connect: The Surprising Link Between Brain Science and Strong, Healthy Relationships,” told Healthline that nonhuman connections, such those made with pets or robots, can help with loneliness.
Banks points to the 2005 study Why it Hurts to Be Left Out, which found that the area of the brain that is stimulated when someone feels left out is the same area of the brain that is affected by physical pain.
“For human beings, it’s so important to be part of a group, that the alarm system for exclusion and physical pain share the same alarm and are recorded as the same level of danger for people,” Banks said.
If people aren’t getting a sense of inclusion from humans, getting it from somewhere else can help ease that pain.
“Part of being chronically lonely is that the dopamine reward system is affected. There have been studies related to the dopamine reward system that show that people light up when they see their pets,” Banks said.
The same goes for robots that can simulate facial expressions.
“So much of pathways of connection are wired into human facial expressions. Our sympathetic nervous system is reading for facial expression and tone of voice and if robots or computers can mimic some of those, they could potentially stimulate similar pathways in people, allowing them to feel less lonely and calmer,” said Banks.
However, human connection still has its place.
“I don’t think robots can replace humans. There’s touch, warmth, and so much to a human relationship that nothing else can provide,” Banks said.
Think of how an infant needs cuddling and holding to stimulate serotonin, opioid, and dopamine pathways.
“This all pairs healthy, safe connection with other human beings. That’s quite literally how you create a human,” said Banks. “Robots could be part of some ongoing maintenance, but we need the initial human-to-human connection to grow these pathways that allow us to connect with people later on.”