Researchers in Singapore have developed an empathetic, robotic polar bear to serve as a companion for the elderly. The robot can read and respond to human emotions and has become a welcome guest at one Singapore elderly care facility. Rob Muir reports.
The residents at Singapore's Villa Francis Home for the Aged, are smiling more than usual these days. They have a new companion, a polar bear who responds to stimulus just as a pet might. Joan Hoffner loves him. (SOUNDBITE) JOAN HOFFNER - VILLA FRANCIS HOME RESIDENT, SAYING: "And he's cuddly, he's intelligent, when you stroke him, talk to him, he answers, when he wants to.." The polar bear was created by Tan Yeow Kee, a robotics scientist. He has equipped the bear with a webcam on its forehead through which it can read smiles, frowns and other emotions. And it can respond to those visual cues and to physical ones, like stroking, through microphones placed under it's fur. Tan says he designed a robot for the elderly because of Singapore's ageing population, and policies that ban pets from elderly care facilities. (SOUNDBITE) TAN YEOW KEE - INSTITUTE FOR INFOCOMM RESEARCH SCIENTIST , SAYING: "Institutes like hospitals might not allow pets to be inside there, and some of the people who have asthma or are allergic to pets, they're unable to interact with the real pet." And here, interaction is all important, according to physiotherapist Janaki Priya. (SOUNDBITE) JANAKI PRIYA - VILLA FRANCIS HOME PHYSIOTHERAPIST , SAYING: "They really need a companion who can just be with them, listen to them, and just give a few expressions here and there, they really don't need to be so interactive, because some of them, because of their impairments, they may not be able to understand, even as humans, what we are trying to tell them." But, she says, they do undersand the bear and the bear seems to understand them..so much so that Tan Yeow Kee now wants to develop it further for other facilities like childrens' hospitals, or wherever there's a need for the bare essentials of companionship.