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Biotechnology and health

How cuddly robots could change dementia care

Researchers are using AI and technological advancements to create companion robots

senior woman in the company of a robotic pet

This article first appeared in The Checkup, MIT Technology Review’s weekly biotech newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Thursday, and read articles like this first, sign up here. 

Last week, I scoured the internet in search of a robotic dog. I wanted a belated birthday present for my aunt, who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Studies suggest that having a companion animal can stave off some of the loneliness, anxiety, and agitation that come with Alzheimer’s. My aunt would love a real dog, but she can’t have one.

That’s how I discovered the Golden Pup from Joy for All. It cocks its head. It sports a jaunty red bandana. It barks when you talk. It wags when you touch it. It has a realistic heartbeat. And it’s just one of the many, many robots designed for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

This week on The Checkup, join me as I go down a rabbit hole. Let’s look at the prospect of  using robots to change dementia care.

Golden pup robot with red kerchief

As robots go, Golden Pup is decidedly low tech. It retails for $140. For around $6,000 you can opt for Paro, a fluffy robotic baby seal developed in Japan, which can sense touch, light, sound, temperature, and posture. Its manufacturer says it develops its own character, remembering behaviors that led its owner to give it attention.  

Golden Pup and Paro are available now. But researchers are working on much more  sophisticated robots for people with cognitive disorders—devices that leverage AI to converse and play games. Researchers from Indiana University Bloomington are tweaking a commercially available robot system called QT to serve people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. The researchers’ two-foot-tall robot looks a little like a toddler in an astronaut suit. Its round white head holds a screen that displays two eyebrows, two eyes, and a mouth that together form a variety of expressions. The robot engages people in  conversation, asking AI-generated questions to keep them talking. 

The AI model they’re using isn’t perfect, and neither are the robot’s responses. In one awkward conversation, a study participant told the robot that she has a sister. “I’m sorry to hear that,” the robot responded. “How are you doing?”

But as large language models improve—which is happening already—so will the quality of the conversations. When the QT robot made that awkward comment, it was running Open AI’s GPT-3, which was released in 2020. The latest version of that model, GPT-4o, which was released this week, is faster and provides for more seamless conversations. You can interrupt the conversation, and the model will adjust.  

The idea of using robots to keep dementia patients engaged and connected isn’t always an easy sell. Some people see it as an abdication of our social responsibilities. And then there are privacy concerns. The best robotic companions are personalized. They collect information about people’s lives, learn their likes and dislikes, and figure out when to approach them. That kind of data collection can be unnerving, not just for patients but also for medical staff. Lillian Hung, creator of the Innovation in Dementia care and Aging (IDEA) lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, told one reporter about an incident that happened during a focus group at a care facility.  She and her colleagues popped out for lunch. When they returned, they found that staff had unplugged the robot and placed a bag over its head. “They were worried it was secretly recording them,” she said.

On the other hand, robots have some advantages over humans in talking to people with dementia. Their attention doesn’t flag. They don’t get annoyed or angry when they have to repeat themselves. They can’t get stressed. 

What’s more, there are increasing numbers of people with dementia, and too few people to care for them. According to the latest report from the Alzheimer’s Association, we’re going to need more than a million additional care workers to meet the needs of people living with dementia between 2021 and 2031. That is the largest gap between labor supply and demand for any single occupation in the United States.

Have you been in an understaffed or poorly staffed memory care facility? I have. Patients are often sedated to make them easier to deal with. They get strapped into wheelchairs and parked in hallways. We barely have enough care workers to take care of the physical needs of people with dementia, let alone provide them with social connection and an enriching environment.

“Caregiving is not just about tending to someone’s bodily concerns; it also means caring for the spirit,” writes Kat McGowan in this beautiful Wired story about her parents’ dementia and the promise of social robots. “The needs of adults with and without dementia are not so different: We all search for a sense of belonging, for meaning, for self-actualization.”

If robots can enrich the lives of people with dementia even in the smallest way, and if they can provide companionship where none exists, that’s a win.

“We are currently at an inflection point, where it is becoming relatively easy and inexpensive to develop and deploy [cognitively assistive robots] to deliver personalized interventions to people with dementia, and many companies are vying to capitalize on this trend,” write a team of researchers from the University of California, San Diego, in a 2021 article in Proceedings of We Robot. “However, it is important to carefully consider the ramifications.”

Many of the more advanced social robots may not be ready for prime time, but the low-tech Golden Pup is readily available. My aunt’s illness has been progressing rapidly, and she occasionally gets frustrated and agitated. I’m hoping that Golden Pup might provide a welcome (and calming) distraction. Maybe  it will spark joy during a time that has been incredibly confusing and painful for my aunt and uncle. Or maybe not. Certainly a robotic pup isn’t for everyone. Golden Pup may not be a dog. But I’m hoping it can be a friendly companion.

Now read the rest of The Checkup

Read more from MIT Technology Review’s archive

Robots are cool, and with new advances in AI they might also finally be useful around the house, writes Melissa Heikkilä. 

Social robots could help make personalized therapy more affordable and accessible to kids with autism. Karen Hao has the story

Japan is already using robots to help with elder care, but in many cases they require as much work as they save. And reactions among the older people they’re meant to serve are mixed. James Wright wonders whether the robots are “a shiny, expensive distraction from tough choices about how we value people and allocate resources in our societies.” 

From around the web

A tiny probe can work its way through arteries in the brain to help doctors spot clots and other problems. The new tool could help surgeons make diagnoses, decide on treatment strategies, and provide assurance that clots have been removed. (Stat

Richard Slayman, the first recipient of a pig kidney transplant, has died, although the hospital that performed the transplant says the death doesn’t seem to be linked to the kidney. (Washington Post)

EcoHealth, the virus-hunting nonprofit at the center of covid lab-eak theories, has been banned from receiving federal funding. (NYT)

In a first, scientists report that they can translate brain signals into speech without any vocalization or mouth movements, at least for a handful of words. (Nature)

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