robotic cat
Hasbro's Joy for All robotic pet cat

The wellness benefits of having a pet are well-documented, but older adults are often forced to give up pets they can no longer care for or that are unwelcome at extended-care facilities.

Those aren’t concerns when the pet is a robot, though.

Hasbro has partnered with researchers and scientists at Brown University’s Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative (HCRI) to study ways the toymaker’s Joy for All robotic companion pets can provide comfort and companionship for the elderly — while possibly protecting their health, too.

HCRI focuses on how people react to machines like robots, said Bertram Malle, a professor at Brown’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic & Psychological Sciences and co-director of the project.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded Brown a $1 million grant to work with Hasbro to develop a second-generation Joy for All pet that would be enhanced with artificial intelligence to help seniors with simple but challenging tasks — everything from fetching eyeglasses to issuing reminders to take medication.

“These things can be really difficult, especially when people are starting to have memory problems,” Malle told Healthline.

These “smart” pets could be especially helpful to individuals with mild dementia, say researchers with the Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support (ARIES) project.

From kids to seniors

Hasbro launched its first Joy for All pet, a cat, two years ago.

That was followed by a robotic dog a year later.

Joy for All builds on the success that the company has had with FurReal Friends.

However, while those interactive toys are designed for children, the Joy for All cat is marketed as a robotic companion and targeted explicitly for the elderly.

Ted Fischer, Hasbro’s vice president of business development, told Healthline that the company sensed the potential for a senior-friendly interactive pet after discovering that 10 to 15 percent of FurReal Friends were being purchased for older adults.

Focus groups with seniors reinforced the need for realistic motions and sounds, including cats that purr and vibrate.

One challenge was that the pets needed to be immediately understandable to an audience that can be low on technical savvy.

“Cats don’t do what you want them to do, so the pet’s reactions are completely random,” said Fischer.

Stroking the Joy for All cat might elicit a purr, for example. Or the cat might just ignore you and lick its paw.

The dog version, on the other hand, is programmed to react to sound like a dog would — with barking.

The three-year NSF-funded project will include a series of user studies to determine how robotic pets can best serve seniors, as well as development of the sensors and artificial intelligence needed to meet those needs.

That could include programming the pet to make gestures or give other clues to help owners with tasks, according to Malle.

The current price of a Joy for All cat is about $100, putting it within reach of individual owners.

By comparison, a baby seal robotic companion called PARO costs $6,000 to $8,000. It’s usually shared among all of the residents of a long-term care facility, said Malle.

Companionship helps with longevity

Researchers stressed that the goal of robot pets isn’t to replace human caregivers, but rather to complement their efforts.

Studies dating back to the 1970s show that interacting with a toy pet — or even tending to a plant — can increase longevity.

“I don’t think robotic pets will be for everyone, but this is a growing population of isolated and lonely seniors for whom companionship is important,” said Fischer. “There’s a real lack of play and happiness and fun among the aging population.”

Researchers are mindful of the need to balance functionality with maintaining at least some illusion that a robot pet is still a cat or dog.

For that reason, talking is probably out. But the pet could be programmed to notice a problem and communicate wirelessly with the owner’s phone to generate an alert, for example.

“We’re not locked into the idea of making these super animals,” said Malle. “We’ve achieved physical comfort, and then we want to add the artificial intelligence. Combining them is really the fun side of this project. The first generation is pretty impressive, but we can go a few steps further.”

“There’s very few companies that understand kids better than we do,” added Fischer. “What makes sense for seniors we’re learning fast, but Brown knows. Our mutual goal is to keep this affordable, to keep it easy to ‘get’ and widely acceptable, and provide functionality that will help aging folks and their families.”