Love pets but don not have time for them? Sony has the answer. The company has manufactured a robot dog, Aibo that is similar to a real dog in terms of assuaging loneliness and causing emotional attachment.
In the study, researchers at the Saint Louis University, compared how residents of three nursing homes interacted with Sparky, a living, medium-sized gentle mutt, and Aibo, which looks like a three-dimensional cartoon.
"The most surprising thing is they worked almost equally well in terms of alleviating loneliness and causing residents to form attachments," said William A. Banks, M.D., professor of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University.
"For those people who can't have a living pet but who would like to have a pet, robotics could address the issue of companionship," Banks added.
To determine whether residents connected better with Sparky or Aibo, researchers divided a total of 38 nursing home residents into three groups.
All residents were asked questions to assess their level of loneliness. One group saw Sparky once a week for 30 minutes, another group saw Aibo, and a control group saw none of them.
During visits, researchers brought both furry and mechanical critter into a resident's room and placed the pet companion near the resident. Sparky and Aibo, interacted with residents - wagging their tails and responding to the people they visited.
The exercise was conducted for seven weeks and after that period was over, all residents were asked questions about how lonely they felt and how attached they were to Sparky or Aibo.
The researchers found that residents who received visits from real and artificial pooches felt less lonely and more attached to their canine attention-givers than those who got visits from neither.
They found no statistical difference between whether the real or robotic dog did a better job easing loneliness and fostering attachments.
Banks said that whether powered by a beating heart or by a rechargeable battery, dogs can be powerful weapons in helping pet-loving nursing home residents feel less lonely and more connected to another being.
"There is a lot of loneliness in nursing homes and animal-assisted therapy - whether from a dog or a robot - is one answer for addressing that," he said.
He further said that robots with personality also could help care for older adults who live alone and need a little monitoring.
"This health companion could follow a person in his home, giving reminders on when to take medication or sending out an alert when a person has suddenly gone from a vertical position to a horizontal one," he said.
"A person could get tired of a robot following him around. But if you could change that inanimate voyeur to a personal part of his life and a companion, that could be entirely different," he added.
The study is published in the March issue of the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association.