Hobbit the robot – a nice companion

“When his head moves it makes me happy and I feel appreciated. I believe I like to think of him as a living thing. He is charming.”
A test subject explains her feelings about the robot called Hobbit – a social robot that works as a communication tool, support and company for elderly persons. It can fetch pills, find keys, pick up things from the floor, notify someone in case the person has fallen down, and provide entertainment. The idea is for a robot like Hobbit to create opportunities for elderly people to remain in their own homes longer.

Susanne Frennert med roboten Hobbit. Utseendet har tagits fram tillsammans med äldre användare som önskade ett ansikte med ögon och inte enbart

Susanne Frennert with the robot Hobbit. Photo: Erik Andersson

“The population is growing, people live longer and we must find new ways of caring for our elderly. Robots could serve as a complement to people”, says Susanne Frennert who is conducting research on user-centred design at Design Sciences in Lund.

She recently obtained her PhD with a thesis on the interplay between elderly persons and robots, and one of her research studies was an EU funded project with the robot Hobbit. During the project, the robot stayed for periods of three weeks with some ten elderly users, who tested the Hobbit’s functions and received help with their everyday chores. The results from the study showed that the robot was more frequently used for entertainment purposes than for practical support. And even if most of the test subjects emphasised that the Hobbit was a machine and not a person, they had all given the robot a name, humanised it and felt that it gave them social stimulation.

“Robots are not social creations in themselves, but can be designed to fulfil social functions such as provide company. The user might then experience them as social”, says Susanne Frennert.

Some of the elderly users missed the Hobbit’s company after the trial period, while others were at peace with no longer having the robot in their homes. After the study, one of the users described their time together by saying: “He is interesting and entertaining, but I wouldn’t want to live with him for the rest of my life.”

“Perhaps no one would like to live with a robot forever, but the chances of finding it useful to have a robot at home increase if the user is included from the very beginning when the technology is developed. In our society, which is becoming more and more digitalised and automated, it is particularly important to listen to what the users have to say at an early stage. Equally important is to ask the right questions: ‘How would you like the robot to work?’ rather than ‘Is this good or bad?’”, says Susanne Frennert.

Many robot solutions intended for elderly users are based on their needs from the perspective of the developers, and far too often they are expected to passively accept the technology that others have developed for them. Susanne Frennert argues that if the robot technology is designed by incorporating the users already in the design process, the robots can become an excellent complement to human assistance for the elderly in residential care of the future.

“Take robotised toilets and showers, for instance. They can give elderly persons more freedom in not having to wait for assistance if they need to use the bathroom or clean themselves. I believe such robot technology is important for their integrity and that it has a great potential of increasing their independence and quality of life”, says Susanne Frennert, who would also consider having a live-in robot to support her when she gets older.

“I would like to have a robot to help me with my personal hygiene, and if I felt lonely and wasn’t able to have pets I think I would like to have a robot to talk to and keep me company. I would also like to have a robot that could do laundry, cook and clean. But this is something I would love to have even today if it were available”, she says with a laugh.

Jessika Sellergren