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A graduate student in the University of Toronto’s Autonomous Systems and Biomechatronics Laboratory interacts with the robot named PepperLaura Pedersen /The University of Toronto

Pepper isn’t your average seniors’ residence care worker.

That was immediately evident when the diminutive robot arrived at the Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care in Scarborough, Ont. to lead weekly exercises, call bingo numbers and take visitors’ temperatures during the pandemic.

Less clear was whether staff – and more importantly, the senior centre’s residents – would embrace the mechanical person with large, round eyes and a tablet embedded in its chest.

The robotics team at the University of Toronto (U of T) that programmed Pepper, alongside a fellow robot named Salt, certainly tried their best to design it to fit in.

The robots have facial expressions and can gesture with their arms and head, says Goldie Nejat, Canada research chair in robots for society, who leads the U of T’s Autonomous Systems and Biomechatronics Laboratory.

“They use the same verbal and non-verbal communication we use, and they have some emotional intelligence, so they can detect emotions and respond to them,” Dr. Nejat says.

The notion of robots caring for aging people may sound like science fiction, but the Pepper pilot shows the future is closer than most people realize.

“We’re about five years away from seeing robots more commonly used in the home or at [seniors’] residences,” Dr. Nejat adds.

Many technologies embedded in robots like Pepper are familiar to Canadians because they’re similar to those in smart-home products like Google Nest Hub, Amazon’s Alexa and iRobot’s floor-sweeping robot, the Roomba.

Robots and existing home automation platforms will help address the growing challenge of providing care for Canada’s rising population of seniors, says Alex Mihailidis, scientific director at Age-Well, Canada’s technology and aging network.

“These will help fill in gaps in the system that are getting wider,” says Dr. Mihailidis, who is also a professor of engineering at the U of T.

By 2031, nearly twice as many older adults will require care, according to a 2021 report by Deloitte and commissioned by the Canadian Medical Association. An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report highlights the pending shortage of long-term care workers globally, as the elderly population outpaces the growth of workers in the industry.

Still, robots and automation technologies are not only about addressing shortages, says San Ng, the chief executive officer of the Yee Hong Centre. She argues the technologies could “increase the quality of life for our seniors for them to get to be engaged in new ways,” adding that Pepper has been a huge hit with residents are her centre.

The capabilities and roles of socially assistive robots like Pepper will also improve given they use artificial intelligence that enables the machines to learn and improve on what they can do as they interact with people and their environment, Dr. Nejat adds.

“They really become personalized to individuals’ needs – and if those needs change as people progress with cognitive disabilities, like dementia – the robots adapt,” she says.

For example, the robots are trained to recognize when a resident who may have severe arthritis is struggling with using a fork at meal-time – and, in turn, will offer alternative ways to hold the utensil. Or in a private residence, a robot could help someone with meal preparation as needed.

Robots are still not ready for widespread commercialization in part due to cost, Dr. Mihailidis says.

“But just as we’re seeing more people use smart-home systems like Google Home and Amazon Alexa, you will see the same happen with robotics,” he says.

Still, even home automation to help individuals age in place is a fledgling industry, notes Mark Hager, editor of AgeInPlace.com, based in Tennessee.

“About 15 years ago, home automation was just for rich people – and it was ridiculously hard to set it up. Now anybody can use it,” he says.

The challenge is that older people may be reluctant to use these tools if they’re not used to using technology like tablets and smartphones, Mr. Hager says.

New businesses have cropped up to help, including Seniority Smart Homes in Toronto.

“It’s not usually seniors who are inquiring about this. It’s their adult children or other family members worried about them,” says Seniority Smart Homes founder Jone Slack, who helps integrate lighting, the thermostat, video calling and even automated reminders to take medication into a senior’s home using Google’s automation platform.

While costs are falling, Mr. Slack says the price for a comprehensive system – with connected cameras, thermostat, doorbell, locks, touchscreen displays and wearables, like a smartwatch that can detect falls – is typically a few thousand dollars.

Dr. Mihailidis says automation technologies are likely to be ubiquitous in homes in the near future, which could help reduce falling risks for many frail aging Canadians.

Yet robots can potentially offer much more, simply by embodying these technologies in a mobile, human-like form.

“If you need Alexa to call for help because you’ve fallen, but you’re in the bathroom, and Alexa is in the family room, that’s not going to be of much help,” he says. “But a robot can come to you and bring you help no matter where you are in your home.”

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