Kiel, London- “What do you feel like doing?” Emma asks in a friendly tone, swinging her arms.
Erika Kratteit bends forwards a little and uses the robot’s touchscreen to select another song.
“Here we go,” says the 87-year-old, and the sound of a 1960s German hit fills the room. The elderly lady’s eyes brighten and she begins to dance. Emma comes here every two weeks, to a home in the northern German city of Kiel, to entertain the dementia patients.
Her programmer, a 29-year-old robotics engineer Hannes Eilers from the city’s university of applied sciences says: “We want the robot to become part of the group, and not be perceived by the residents as a foreign object. That means Emma has to integrate.”
The robot has been visiting the home for the past three months, and so far the results are positive. Dementia patients seem to love it when the robot plays their favorite music for them.
Care director Thorben Maack says: “Of course the songs bring back memories. There are a dozen people in the home, aged between 75 and 93, and the illness manifests itself differently in each of them.”
Kratteit is already very fond of Emma. “The movements, the eyes, I like them,” she says, adding that she used to sing herself in a choir. “I still enjoy singing.”
At first the residents were skeptical of Emma, says team leader Ingrid Fritsch. But that quickly changed. “They touched the robot, asked her questions.”
Emma can answer four questions, says Eilers. One of them is “Where do you come from?” “I come from Kaliningrad,” Kratteit tells the 1.6-meter-tall robot. “I come from Paris, that’s in France,” answers Emma.
The robot also responds to calls, can recognize faces and take pictures of residents if they want with a small camera embedded in her forehead.
The results are displayed seconds later on the screen on her chest.
“If you don’t talk to her though she gets bored,” says Eilers. “Then she goes walkabout.” Sometimes that means she approaches the residents directly.
Scientists have been working on robots to care for the elderly for years. In Japan, the PARO therapeutic robot by AIST is already in its eighth generation and has been in use since 2003.
In Germany, the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology developed “Alias,” a robot aimed at helping the elderly with everyday tasks and encouraging them to remain active.
The University of Applied Scientists Ravensburg-Weingarten built Marvin, a robot that can help disabled people by pouring glasses of water or passing an apple.
German engineers have also developed another robot aimed at helping people who have suffered a stroke learn to walk again. “Emma is there to support the care-workers,” says Maack. “But she’s not a replacement.”
He thinks the robots have potential to help in other ways though, for example reminding dementia patients to take their medicine, or warning carers if a patient wanders off.
“For that to happen it would have to be cheaper though,” he says. Emma cost about 17,000 euros (19,000 dollars) and was paid for by Kiel University.
“We’re always developing new ideas with the home about what the robot can do here,” says Eilers. The first robot he worked on was significantly smaller. Grace was supposed to help the elderly people stay fit and carried out different exercises with them.
Emma, who weighs 45 kilograms, is an improvement on that machine. The robot is soon to start playing memory games with the residents.
For the meantime though, music is still on the agenda for today. All the residents stand up and start to dance as the next hit comes on, Kratteit in the middle, smiling and holding Emma by the hand.