Automated friends keep seniors company, will one day do more

Updated 2016-11-23 10:35:40 Global Times

Imagine when you become old, instead of your children or a paid carer, a robot cooks for you, makes your bed, reminds you to take your medicine on time and even chats with you.

Today's young people won't have to wait until their hair is grey to see this reality however, they just need to travel to East China's Zhejiang Province.

Since May, four robots have been helping elderly people at a nursing home in Hangzhou, the provincial capital.

Experts say robots which serve seniors are needed in aging societies, but machines can never replicate the emotional care which human beings can provide.

Metal companion

The robots, named "A-Tie," have been put in use in the Hangzhou Social Welfare Center since May after three years of development and tests, news portal thepaper.cn reported on November 16.

The robots were developed by Hangzhou-based Woosiyuan Telecom Technology Co Ltd and are now going through trial operations. The A-Tie robots, whose name means "iron" in Chinese, are 0.8 meters tall and weigh 15 kilograms, similar to a two- or three-year-old human. They have round bodies and heads with two antennae, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

The robots are controlled by a mobile phone app or touch screens, and they can do much more than just remind patients to take their medicine. Their screens can be used to make video calls, hold virtual consultations or watch television, said Xinhua.

Zhao Huyue, deputy chief of the social welfare center, said "the robots could bring some new experiences to the elderly people and make the nursing service diverse."

Robotic future

"The robot was developed with policy support for encouraging intelligential industries," Sun Jian, the leader of the A-Tie project, told the Global Times on Friday.

The country aims to sell more than 30 billion yuan (.6 billion) worth of service robots by 2020 amid surging demand in the healthcare, scientific research and domestic service sectors, according to a guideline posted on the website of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).

"But nursing robots are still in the development stage, at which the technologies are immature and many potential functions are still only in our imagination," Zuo Shiquan, an expert at the Beijing-based CCID Consulting, told the Global Times on Friday.

Zuo noted that at the current stage, people's understanding and awareness of nursing robots is still forming, and the industry has just started.

Sun said that the functions of the robots are still limited by current technologies, but the development team is gradually upgrading them, adding functions such as bringing tea to people.

Zuo said that technologies, such as recognition technology, man-machine cooperation and interdisciplinary technologies, have been or will be put into nursing robots, and in the next 10 to 20 years, a trend of more and more robots serving and nursing people will be witnessed.

"In the future, the nursing robots could have more uses, such as analyzing the health of elderly people and giving them treatment," an unnamed staff member from the Hangzhou Social Welfare Center was quoted as saying by thepaper.cn.

People's role

China had about 222 million people over 60 years old as of the end of 2015, accounting for 16.1 percent of the country's total population, Deputy Civil Affairs Minister Gao Xiaobing said at an expo for seniors held in Beijing in May.

"China is facing not only the pressure of an aging population, but also a lack of social workers and facilities to take care of elderly people, which is the reason that now we need nursing robots," Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, told the Global Times on Thursday.

Caring for elderly people demands a huge amount of labor, so some other countries, especially Japan, have also been stressing the development of nursing robots, according to Zuo.

"Related safeguards and laws regarding robots are also needed," he added.

"Robots do not have emotions and they never complain, so they can meet the needs of seniors," Hu said, noting that "however, robots are always machines. They cannot replace human care, especially the company of seniors' children and relatives."

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