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Could cuddling a robot cure Britain’s loneliness epidemic? 

As I scoop the childlike bundle into my arms, its big eyes light up with delight and it lets out a cheerful chirp. An immediate sense of warmth, calm and yes, even affection sweeps over me.

It’s clearly feeling as content as me, and its eyes start to close as it settles down, making occasional mews, just like a baby. But it’s not human, nor an animal. In fact, I am cuddling a robot – one that is on a very important mission: to cure loneliness.

I’m in the heart of noisy, 24-7 Las Vegas at CES, the biggest, most celebrated annual technology convention in the world. And even though there are hundreds of thousands of people here, vying to see the latest must-have gadgets from more than 20,000 on display, I find that cuddling the Lovot – the name combines the words ‘love’ and ‘robot’ – to be an astonishingly soothing experience. It gives me a wonderful sense of not being quite so alone in this crowd of strangers.

Indeed, Lovot is being hailed as the key to beating the devastating loneliness crisis blighting every country, including Britain.

Mail On Sunday reporter Eve Simmons cuddling a robot. She said she felt an ‘immediate sense of warmth, calm and affection’ when cuddling the robot

There are already almost 12 million ‘older’ people in the UK – those over 65 – and more than half consider the television their main source of company. At least 3.5 million live alone, nearly 70 per cent of them women. By 2040, one in four people will be in this age group, meaning loneliness will increase to epidemic proportions.

And this is not just a social tragedy. Research shows that long-term loneliness raises the risk of stroke, heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and suicide, and doubles the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Enter Lovot. This furry friend, weighs 6 lb – the size of an average newborn – stands 16in tall and is designed to give unconditional love and tactile companionship.

It was built by Japanese tech guru Kaname Hayashi, best known for designing Pepper, the robot that made history in October when it appeared in the House of Commons to answer questions from MPs about the role of technology in our lives.

March of the machines: Virtual reality carer Addison

March of the machines: Virtual reality carer Addison

An elderly lady heads down memory lane in Rendever virtual-reality goggles

An elderly lady heads down memory lane in Rendever virtual-reality goggles

Pepper was primarily intended to work in shops. But Lovot was created to be like a best friend.

Hayashi believes his creation, with its soft outer shell, own clothing range and a temperature just above human body heat, can help fill that lonely gap so many adults feel.

With its big eyes, round face and two wheels, Lovot also has a ‘voice’ – although it doesn’t speak in words, but strange Tellytubby-like coos and chirps. An antenna on its head and 50 sensors allow it to be responsive to sounds, temperature and how it’s treated. It wanders around, with its sophisticated internal circuitry mapping the layout of a room as it goes. And it flaps its penguin-like arms when it wants to be held.

Lovot is available to pre-order but a pair will set you back £4,320, with delivery not expected until 2020. It’s hardly a throwaway Christmas purchase for the kids, then, but possibly cheaper than a pedigree dog. And there are no food or vet bills.

This robot is just one of the amazing new wave of innovations I witnessed at CES that aim to transform health and social care as we know it – everything from a pair of robotic ‘trousers’ to aid mobility to robot home carers, and even a robot to cuddle in bed.

And there’s no doubt that this is the way things are going. Last week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that all patients in England should be able to have a ‘digital consultation’ with their GP via video link using a smartphone or computer webcam by 2024.

As I have seen first-hand, the march of the machines continues and technology-enabled care services are already starting to transform peoples’ lives.

Sceptical? Read on to find out about a few of the other revolutionary discoveries I saw last week and coming your way…

ROBO-LEGS THAT PUT SOME PEP IN YOUR STEP

WHAT IS IT?

Samsung’s most intriguing unveiling was a range of devices that mesh man and machine: three robotic exoskeletons to be worn over the legs.

The Gait Enhancing Motivational System, or GEMS, look a bit like lederhosen that Robocop might wear, and are designed to boost walking speed, improve balance and cut energy expenditure.

Stroke patients, people rehabilitating after joint ops and those who simply are no longer steady on their feet could all benefit.

Mail On Sunday reporter Eve Simmons wearing the Samsung GEMS exoskeleton

Mail On Sunday reporter Eve Simmons wearing the Samsung GEMS exoskeleton

HOW DOES IT WORK?

While other robotic exoskeletons are designed to help the paralysed walk again, this high-tech harness is aimed at those who have slowed down and would like to speed up. Samsung is making three versions, the GEMS-H for hips, GEMS-A for ankles and GEMS-K for knees.

The GEMS-H promises to assist walking, cutting energy expenditure by almost a quarter, and improve posture and boost walking pace by almost 20 per cent. It will also help provide stability.

Straps hug the hips and connect to ones that encircle both thighs while electronic packs sit on the small of the back and on the outside of each leg. Sensors measure the wearer’s hip angles and posture, and each time the wearer’s foot hits the ground, the robot subtly assists and lift the legs.

I slip my legs into the white, plastic frame and adjust it – using clips on the side of each leg – to fit against my thighs tightly. After setting the built-in control to a modest ‘medium’ speed, I am off.

It feels as though my legs have been ‘super-charged’: steps require minimal effort. I glide up stairs and dart around the room without feeling I’ve moved much at all. Next I change the setting to ‘resistance’ mode, designed to provide a challenging exercise for those who need to increase their fitness.

It’s a little like walking under water. The strain on my buttocks and thighs is enough to feel like exercise, without breaking much of a sweat. 

  • There’s no launch date or price for GEMS yet.

THE CUSHION THAT CUDDLES YOU TO SLEEP

WHAT IS IT?

Billed as the world’s first sleep robot, Somnox is a chunky peanut-shaped cushion that gently ‘breathes’ in and out as you hug it in bed. It aims to ‘help you sleep faster, longer and wake up refreshed by slowing down your breathing, focusing your breathing and playing soothing sounds’.

With almost seven in ten British adults struggling to get a good night’s sleep, raising their risk of obesity, heart disease and mental health problems, Somnox could be a welcome cuddly alternative to sleeping pills.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Samsung's Bot Care 'robonurse 'is a 2ft-tall ‘robotic nurse’ on wheels

Samsung’s Bot Care ‘robonurse ‘is a 2ft-tall ‘robotic nurse’ on wheels

More a smart pillow than a robot, it is designed to be cuddled like a teddy bear. Once in your arms, a touch-sensitive computer and motor deep inside triggers it to slowly inflate and deflate, mimicking the calm breathing pattern of a deep sleep.

The device is based on the idea that slow, deep breathing is key to sleep – and the brain subconsciously mirrors the breathing of others. Studies on babies have shown that such mirror breathing can lead to not just better sleep but a better mood the next day.

Although the softer-than-soft fabric is certainly comforting to touch, I felt uneasy about a non-human ‘sleep partner’, quietly moving in my embrace (but at least you don’t worry about snoring).

Somnox also emits light that gradually gets brighter, simulating a sunrise, when it’s time to wake up.

  • Somnox is available now, priced £429. Visit meetsomnox.com.

THE WORLD’S FIRST ROBO-NURSE

WHAT IS IT?

Bot Care is a 2ft-tall ‘robotic nurse’ on wheels. She (it has a female voice) has a sleek white exterior with a screen ‘face’ complete with blinking, animated eyes. Bot Care explained when she introduced herself: ‘I make it easy to manage your daily health routine by checking vital signs like blood pressure, pulse and heart rate.’

According to Yoon Lee, senior vice president of creators Samsung, she is an example of the company’s quest to ‘address the challenge of an increasing ageing population with technology’.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Bot Care has an array of sensors: if you hold a fingertip on one on her ‘face’, she can read blood pressure and pulse. It then draws on its artificial intelligence catalogue to tell you – via speech – what your reading is and whether it is normal. I do so, and have readings that ‘are within the normal range’, she says, adding: ‘Keep up the good work.’

And what if I fancy doing a spot of yoga? ‘Bot Care,’ I ask, ‘show me a yoga workout please?’ With a single blink of its line-drawing eyes, a full instruction video is displayed on-screen within seconds.

Other sensors can monitor breathing rate – even while the user is asleep – and temperature and will offer solutions accordingly; including playing music to ease stress.

The spatial awareness sensor detects changes in their user’s height, indicating a fall, and calls a specified emergency contact via the phone function which could very well prove life-saving. Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics show that fall-related deaths have rocketed up by 177 per cent in men over the past decade, and by 72 per cent in women.

  • A price and release date for Bot Care is yet to be announced.

GLASSES TO BOOST MEMORY FOR DEMENTIA PATIENTS

WHAT IS IT?

Rendever are goggles that use virtual reality to ‘transport’ users to anywhere in the world, providing it is listed on Google Maps.

Home towns, wedding locations and favourite holiday spots can all be ‘visited’ on a stroll down memory lane. Such interaction can ease the agitation, isolation and depression that often accompanies dementia, boosting mood and, crucially, improving recall.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

THEY are much like the goggles used for computer video games, except that these are designed for use by the elderly at home and in care homes. The user feels he or she is actually ‘in’ the place on the screen. All you need to do is tap a postcode into the linked app. I opt for my childhood home, and the experience is truly magical.

Dr Mike Short, chief scientific adviser to the Department for International Trade, says: ‘VR devices can be an effective and useful memory jogger for people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. It can ease the pain often felt when patients struggle to remember something important.’ 

  • Rendever will be available by 2020. Visit rendever.com.

YOUR FRIENDLY VIRTUAL REALITY CARER

WHAT IS IT?

ADDISON Care Virtual Assistant is billed as the world’s first virtual-reality carer. More than 15 million Britons are living with a chronic illness, with many needing part or full-time carers – while a severe shortage of care professionals continues to worsen. Addison aims to fill the gap by monitoring the health of ‘users’ at home, sending alerts to a doctor or emergency services if there are concerns.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Addison works in much the same way as Amazon’s Alexa: it is a voice-controlled artificial intelligence computer programme.

Unlike Alexa, Addison has a friendly ‘face’: a computer animated blonde female character dressed in a hospital scrubs-type outfit. The system involves computer screens being fitted throughout the home, on which Addison appears to interact with the users.

Sophisticated motion-sensing cameras allow her to ‘watch’ whoever is in the room. Facial recognition software means she instantly knows who she is looking at.

Users’ medical records can be uploaded to the Addison central computer, and constant at-home monitoring can be carried out using wearable wrist trackers and handheld devices to measure blood pressure, heart rate and other vital statistics. She can give health and medication advice and is connected to GP services.

A price and release date for Addison is yet to be announced.

THE PILL DISPENSER THAT TALKS TO YOU

WHAT IS IT?

Pillo is a coffee machine-size robot that dispenses medication when it ‘sees’ your face and hears your voice at set times throughout the day. The designers say it is an effective way to ‘reduce inefficiencies’ – a recent NICE review found that between a third and half of all medications in the UK are taken incorrectly, especially among people taking several prescriptions, wasting £300 million annually.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

The user or their carer loads the Pillo with a batch of medication every 28 days. Health data, emergency contacts, medication dose and preferred timings are input into a paired app.

An hour before it is time to take the medication, Pillo issues a sound alert on the device and app. When it’s time to take the tablets, it releases the dose.

The built-in voice and face recognition provide an extra layer of security: Pillo will dispense pills only when it recognises the designated users’ faces or voices.

It reminds you of medication times, and contacts a family member or carer if a dosage is missed.

When its 7in touchscreen isn’t displaying important information, it turns into a cute ‘face’.

  • Pillo is available now, priced £389 plus a £31.25 monthly subscription fee. pillohealth.com

Gizmos aimed at giving you glowing skin…

A SELFIE TO SPOT SIGNS OF SKIN CANCER

Olay’s popular Skin Advisor app already works out with a single selfie where your face is dry, oily and most heavily lined. But available later this year is an added benefit; it can now track changes in marks or moles over time, helping to catch skin cancer early. Suffice to say it was the least flattering selfie I have ever taken.

sa.olayskinadvisor.com, free

THE LIGHT THAT BANISHES REDNESS

This handheld device, right, uses tiny LED lights to detect discolouring, before squirting out hundreds of microscopic specks of colour-matched serum. It’s like a sensitive splatter gun, full of concealer. The result? Flawless skin.

Opté Precision SkinCare System, expected spring 2019, price not yet confirmed.

A SENSOR TO STOP SKIN CONDITIONS

L’Oreal’s miniature skin patch is designed to test your skin’s Ph by absorbing water in your pores. I know what you’re thinking – what on earth is the point? – but according to the manufacturers, healthy skin Ph should measure between 4.5 and 5.5 (slightly acidic) and changes can indicate skin conditions such as eczema and dermatitis.

If anything irritated my skin, it was prizing the watery sticker from my arm hairs.

My Skin Track pH by La Roche-Posay, expected late 2019, price not yet confirmed.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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