Robotic cats to aid elderly with $1 million federal grant

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Toy maker Hasbro and scientists at Brown University have received a three-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to find ways to add artificial intelligence to Hasbro’s “Joy for All” robotic cat. The cats are being marketed as a way to improve the lives of the elderly.

The cat, which has been on the market for two years, is meant to act as a “companion” for senior citizens. It purrs, meows, and even appears to lick its paw and can roll over. Now, the Brown-Hasbro project is aimed at developing additional capabilities for the cats to help older people accomplish simple tasks.

The goal for Researchers at Brown’s Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative is to help older adults stay in their own homes longer and have a better quality of life. To that end, they’re investigating the best ways for the cats to help, such as in finding lost objects or reminding the owner to call someone or go to a doctor’s appointment.

“It’s not going to iron and wash dishes,” said Bertram Malle, a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown. “Nobody expects them to have a conversation. Nobody expects them to move around and fetch a newspaper. They’re really good at providing comfort.”

The current version of the “Joy for all” cat costs $100, and researchers are determined to keep the price affordable.

Diane Feeney Mahoney, a professor emerita at MGH Institute of Health Professions School of Nursing, who has studied technology for older people, said the project showed promise and could make things easier for someone caring for a person with middle-stage dementia or be used in nursing homes where pets are not allowed.

The scientists are hoping that by creating an interaction in which the human is needed, they could help combat feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety.

“The cat doesn’t do things on its own. It needs the human, and the human gets something back,” Malle said. “That interaction is a huge step up. Loneliness and uselessness feelings are hugely problematic.”


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