Robot seals to help dementia patients in North Yorkshire ... and robot cats could be next

A robot seal. Photo courtesy of www.paroseal.co.uk
A robot seal. Photo courtesy of www.paroseal.co.uk

It’s white, furry and could soon be keeping dementia patients company in North Yorkshire.

High-tech seals are set to be rolled out across the region as North Yorkshire County Council explores new technology to help service the largest county in the country.

The seals, nicknamed ‘Yorkie’ by the council, are therapeutic robots, first developed in Japan about 15 years ago and have been used to support people living with dementia and other conditions ever since.

While the furry white seal may look like a child’s toy, the lap-sized robot is crammed with technology, including five sensors which can detect touch, light, sound, temperature and posture.

It means the seals can recognise light and dark, as well as being able to tell when it’s being petted or held.

‘Yorkie’ can also recognise the direction of voice and words such as its name, greetings, and praise with its audio sensor.

North Yorkshire charity Dementia Forward will soon began a three-month trial of the robots, where they will be tasked with working across a range of groups to evaluate the impact on patients’ well-being.

Members of the county’s care and independence scrutiny committee were also told that a number of robotic cats, similar to Yorkie the seal, will also be trialled across a range of services over the next few months.

Despite being used across the world in therapeutic roles over the last decade, concerns have previously been raised over whether it was humane to entrust emotional support for humans to robots.

That point was addressed by Michael Rudd, the county’s head of housing market development team.

“Whenever we talk about technology, there’s always some concerns raised around social isolation and human beings being replaced by machines,” he said.

“For us, where technology sits, it benefits what we already have and allows us to maximise our workforce.”

According to the report presented to committee members, “Yorkie seems to have a great impact on people’s outcomes”.

“Trials across the world have been found to reduce stress, stimulate interaction between people and carers, and has been shown to have a psychological effect on people, improving their relaxation and motivation and reducing challenging behaviour,” the report states.

The new came as councillors discussed the roll-out of increased and improved assistive technology use in North Yorkshire.

Mr Rudd said the robots were just one aspect of new technology the council was exploring in providing support to the large number of rural residents who required it.

“Moving much forward with this, we’re looking at (voice activated virtual assistants such as) Amazon Alexa and Google Home,” he said.

“We’re really keen to start using that consumer technology… we’re much keener to say ‘let’s use what you’ve already got, what are you already using and what are you comfortable with.”