Dog.

A US start-up is developing software to help lonely seniors. Photo: GeriJoy via Bloomberg

In the 2012 movie Robot & Frank, the adult child of an elderly man dealing with isolation and dementia gives his father a robot companion to keep him company and alleviate the effects of his illness. The film is set in the near future, but the basic technology behind the premise - using electronic companions to provide a therapeutic benefit to the elderly - could be for sale in just a few months.

Launched in February, GeriJoy Technologies is developing software, built to run primarily on an iPad or Android tablet, that allows users to communicate with each other via an electronic companion in form of a simply animated brown dog named Buddy.

The software is controlled by humans, not artificial intelligence. Typing isn't required; just the ability to speak or touch the screen. The idea is to offer seniors a constant companion to help allay loneliness and the symptoms of some illnesses, the same way a living, breathing pet would - without the same responsibilities a real animal demands.

Getting the project off the ground

The US company has raised $US100,000 from incubators such as Blueprint Health and such angel investors as Esther Dyson. Victor Wang, GeriJoy's chief executive officer and a 2012 graduate of MIT, where he studied robotics and human-machine interfaces, says the software should be widely available by year's end.

In the beta tests, currently being conducted at six senior-care facilities in the Boston and New York City areas, seniors can ask Buddy questions and get spoken or picture-based responses, which are coming from GeriJoy employees operating the technology. Their virtual pet can alert them to new e-mail or when other content - such as a snapshot of a grandkid - as it arrives.

Benefits?

The therapeutic and social benefits of animal companions have been well documented for years. In 1994, the National Pets & People survey in Australia was one of the first major studies to investigate the connection between pet ownership and human health. The study found that dog and cat owners had better mental and physical health, made fewer annual doctor visits, and were less likely to be on medication for heart or sleeping problems than people who did not own pets.

More recently, a 2007 study by the Delta Society, a non-profit that encourages people to interact with pets for health benefits, found that people with advanced heart failure that receive a 12-minute visit from a human volunteer with a therapy dog had greater decreases in blood pressure and stress levels than those visited for the same amount of time by a person only.

Can an electronic substitute compare? “Satisfaction [with this kind of technology] has been extremely positive,” says Dr Timothy Bickmore, associate professor at the College of Computer & Information Science at Northeastern University and an expert in the field of “relational agents,” a technology similar to GeriJoy's own. GeriJoy hasn't yet completed any studies proving the efficacy of its software, but it is in the process of gathering data.

Grandma sparks idea

Wang, 25, got the idea for GeriJoy in late 2011 from phone calls with one of his grandmothers in Taiwan. Without much family nearby, he says, she was at one time isolated and depressed - which triggered the realisation that many elderly individuals are experiencing the same issues, and many families may lack the means to pay for a full-time human caretaker. Wang says he chose a dog as the initial interface because of the track record of pet therapy for improving emotional and overall health.

Dr Joseph C Kvedar, director for Connected Health at Partners Health Care in Boston and an associate professor at the Harvard Medical School, as well as a mentor to GeriJoy's founders, says that technology like this will become essential in the next few years as the demand for health-care professionals and caretakers outpaces the supply.

“We will need to automate certain aspects of care … not just because of the mechanics of health care, but because there's a shortage of people to render that care,” says Dr. Kvedar. He notes it could also remind users to take their medication, exercise, or check their blood pressure, improving their conscientiousness about managing their health.

While GeriJoy's Buddy is somewhat novel, it's not the only such technology. Starting in November 2003, Dr Bickmore tested his own relational agent technology in four separate projects at geriatric and older-adult facilities and recently received a National Science foundation grant to develop his technology further. (Another relational agent application he created, a virtual hospital discharge nurse, was licensed to health-care technology provider Engineered Care in March 2010.) Dr Bickmore says that while popular perception holds the elderly aren't interested in using relational agents, his studies have shown that the most “positive feedback comes from the people with the lowest health and technology literacy".

Trials

Stephen Copper, executive director of the Golden Living Center, one of the senior living facilities that is testing the GeriJoy system with a few of its residents, says that he has seen the benefits since starting with early prototypes in March. Copper says the residents with early Alzheimer's or dementia “lit up and started interacting right away” with Buddy.

In one case, he says a resident with dementia who frequently woke up in the middle of the night and previously had wandered from his room, was instead choosing to engage with his virtual pet at those times. “In a long-term care facility, we can only provide so many hours of activity, of interaction,” says Copper. “I would much rather see [our residents] playing with Buddy than waiting for the next meal or the next activity.”

For now, the users of GeriJoy's technology are getting to test it for free. Once the consumer platform is launched, Wang is hoping that senior-care facilities, as well as seniors and their loved ones, will value this interaction enough to pay $US150 up front and $US149 per month for round-the-clock service. Wang expects that at least 500 people will pay for this service in 2013 and another 300 will subscribe to a 60-minute-per-day package for $US29 per month.

Bickmore admits he's unsure whether a business model exists for this kind of technology.

“But I am sure there will be a lot of early adopters and wealthy individuals who will give this to their parents to alleviate their guilt,” he says. “As far as it being adopted by the wider population, that remains to be seen.”

- Bloomberg