Skip to main content

UBC researcher introduces AI powered 'social robots' to West Vancouver seniors facility

When UBC assistant professor Dr. Lillian Hung went to Japan and saw "social robots" for the first time, she knew she wanted to being them to Canada.

The small, round AI-equipped devices – sometimes known as love robots, or "lovots" – are designed to act like pets, reacting to a person’s voice and face.

“It sings with you, plays with you, dances with you, follows you – just makes sure you feel that you’re loved,” said Hung, who is a Canada Research Chair in Senior Care.

She convinced the manufacturer to lend her two of the $5,000 social robots for a study at West Vancouver’s Amica senior living facility. She wants to see how older adults, many of whom suffered through years of isolation during the pandemic, react to the robots, which self-charge much like a robotic vacuum.

“There is a really huge demand and desire for social connections, right? This is what the robot does. Positivity, joy, for quality of life,” Hung said.

The more residents interact with the robots, named Mango and Kiwi, the more affectionate and playful they will become with that person. They coo when they’re touched, and raise their arms to be picked up. They’re also programmed to be jealous when one gets more attention than the other.

“I think they are adorable,” said Amica resident Sally Carmichael. “Lots of fun to play with once you get used to them, and over your fear of looking stupid!”

She thinks the robots will be helpful for senior living residents who are still adapting to post-pandemic life.

“I think it would be the best thing for people who are shy and don’t want to come out of their room and meet anybody. You could play with it all day, once you become used to how they react to you,” Carmichael said.

Peter Christiansen, Amica’s community operations manager, said resident reaction has varied. "Some of them are very excited and love the cuteness, and others are a bit more wary about what is this A.I. thing, and others are just happy to have a story for their grandkids.”

Kiwi and Mango will be visiting Amica every Saturday. “The robots are on loan, they wouldn’t even let me buy the robots, so we only have them for less than a year,” said Hung who added they have to go back to Japan in March 2024, and that’s when her research study will conclude.

“We will do interviews and make observations in letting staff and older people interact with the robots, and ask their perspective and what do they think about the possibility of having robots in their life in their environment,” Hung said.

If the robots enrich the lives of Amica residents, Christiansen said he will look into the possibility of making them permanent residents.

Carmichael hopes that happens. “This little fellow I met about an hour ago this morning, and I didn’t know how I was going to react to him. But now, I could take him home.” Top Stories


WATCH LIVE 'I know I messed up': Speaker Fergus testifying about video controversy

A repentant Greg Fergus is testifying Monday morning before his peers about what he says was his unintentional participation in a partisan provincial Liberal party event in early December, telling MPs on the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) that as the House of Commons Speaker, he knows he "messed up.'

Stay Connected