An Emotional Little Grandma-Companion

Back to Contents of Issue: October 2001

As Japan grays, its seniors will need high-tech assistance -- and companionship. Say hello to PaPeRo.

by Kyoko Fujimoto

Japan is getting old. Senior citizens (age 65 or over) in Japan now account for 17 percent of the population, and that's expected to reach 25 percent in 2025. Clearly the market for senior citizens is growing, and so is the number of products targeted at them. NTT's L-mode service -- like i-mode, but for fixed-line phones -- is aimed in part at middle-aged and elderly people (especially women) who feel uneasy using computers. You can find computers designed especially for the elderly and handicapped. Software like HomePage Reader (by IBM) and Operate Navi (assistance software by NEC for people who can't use a regular keyboard) are available on the market as well.

Many products are souped-up versions of ordinary household appliances: Panasonic is developing Healthy Toilet, for example, which measures your weight and body fat and does urine analysis. Zojirushi last year released i pot, an electric pot with a wireless communication tool installed so that faraway family members can check if the pot has been in regular use or not (thereby ensuring that its owner is alive and well).

If you take a look at the Web sites of electronics makers, there are always some pages for products targeted at senior citizens. While some have not yet reached the market, it is clear that research in this area is going on everywhere.

But while all these high-tech assistance products can be quite useful, there is another need those product developers may be neglecting. With a growing number of elderly in Japan living on their own, loneliness is an increasingly common problem. What many elderly folks may really want is to communicate with someone. A high-tech robot named PaPeRo could be just the thing to provide the "mental support" some are looking for.

"Hi, Yotchan! Haven't seen you for a while," says little PaPeRo, when he wakes up and finds Yotchan -- Yoshihiro Fujita, that is, a manager at the Personal Robot Center in NEC Laboratories who has been involved in this robot project from the beginning. "It's been about a week since I turned the switch on for demonstration," explains Fujita.

PaPeRo (Partner-type Personal Robot) is a communication robot developed in NEC's lab as part of the company's research into the possibilities for a home robot. The project started in January 1997, and the second model, PaPeRo, came out early this year. He looks just like any other toy robot, but packs a lot more punch technology-wise. With his computer vision, he can recognize up to 10 people; with his speech recognition, he can understand human language; and with his telecommunication capabilities, he can connect to the Internet. In fact, PaPeRo contains a Windows-based computer with a wireless modem installed.

When PaPeRo wakes up -- i.e. when someone turns the switch on -- he usually wanders around the room and tries to find someone to talk to. When an email message arrives for a family member, he looks for that person and delivers the message. If you call him, he tries to find where you are and start communicating with you. He can dance, tell you the date and other reminders, wake you up in the morning, get information from the Internet, and turn the TV on. He also changes his attitude according to how you treat him. He can understand about 650 conversations and speak about 3,000 variations of words. You can also program him for new words and behaviors and even download new actions from the Internet for him to perform.

PaPeRo is still in the development stage, and is not targeted only at elderly people. NEC currently has about 30 families testing the robot, and the firm is trying to learn what PaPeRo can do to facilitate its owners' daily lives. Possibilities include home security systems, remote health care systems, watchguard services for elderly people, and use as a learning tool. "Actually one of the monitor families is an elderly couple, and they turn the switch on everyday," says Fujita, implying that there may be real potential for the "mental support" function mentioned earlier.

Of course, PaPeRo is not the only smart robot out there. Sony's pet robot, Aibo, is already on the market and still getting a lot of attention. Aibo cannot talk or do anything particularly useful, but many people care for him like a real pet. There's also the pet robot released by Panasonic a few years ago (available in cat- or bear-type), which was targeted to elderly people and is being experimented with in some nursing facilities for senior citizens. It can greet you with words and is equipped with a telecommunication tool so that elderly people can be "connected."

PaPeRo has functions quite similar to these, but a major difference is that PaPeRo seems to be more emotional. This sometimes makes it difficult to deal with, but the result is a more human-like creature. When Fujita tried to show how PaPeRo does an "angry dance," he repeatedly hit the robot. PaPeRo was at first patient and said something like "I'll sue you," and "It's going to cost you a lot to repair me," but finally he got mad and produced the sound of a volcano. Later, when Fujita asked him to turn the TV on, PaPeRo still seemed to be angry at him and said, "Why don't you do it yourself?" He may be adorable, but this is one little robot that demands respect.

If he can turn the TV on, I wondered, could he bring me some tea? I decided to try it out and asked him. His response: "Hey, somebody! Bring us some tea!" Sorry -- that's the best he can do for now. But PaPeRo certainly brings us one step closer to creating the real Astro Boy, or the AI in Spielberg's movie. The mother in AI dumped the robot for her real son, but if you're alone with no kids around, you may be happy to have PaPeRo by your side. @

Note: The function "email this page" is currently not supported for this page.