‘Robot carers’ developed in Bristol laboratory

Scientists in Bristol are developing robots to provide care and companionship for elderly people. It is an attempt to address the issue of who will care for Britain’s increasingly ageing population.

In the last 25 years the number of people aged 85 or over has more than doubled.

The work is being carried out by the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England.

With social care budgets under pressure, governments across the world are searching for cheaper solutions to provide care.

The Bristol Robotics Laboratory believe robots could eventually help older people to live independently at home for longer.

One of their early machines is called Mobiserv and can help with tasks like ordering the shopping and reminding elderly people when to take their medication.

The Mobiserv project is a collaboration between seven different countries and will run for three years.

It is supported by a grant from the European Union of £3.5m.

Mobiserv is just one of many projects under development at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, which has become something of a hub of robotic innovation.

Another robotic device helps users to regain strength in their hand after a stroke.

And there is also a machine which has been designed to look like a human with realistic facial expressions that help to convey emotions.

‘Human contact’

But not everyone is convinced robots will be a solution to Britain’s looming care crisis.

Professor Heinz Wolff, the star of the 1980s science programme The Great Egg Race, was involved in the development of some early devices to help the elderly but he does not think machines could ever replace face-to-face human contact.

He said: “I’m quite sure that when you are the venerable age that I’ve reached and somebody says your robot is going to be delivered tomorrow and it will look after you, you will be a little unhappy.

“You might wonder how nice it would be to have someone who had warm hands and someone who cares and gives you a peck on the cheek. Mind you, a robot could kiss you I suppose – imagine being kissed by a robot.”

The Bristol Black Carers organisation which offers a support service for black and ethnic minority carers is also sceptical.

Development officer Hazel Brittan says: “We’ve got carers from a range of different backgrounds with lots of history and lots of cultures.

“Is this robot going to be able to fit into those histories and cultures and be able to really get into the depths of what people are saying?”