Robot or real: No difference in dogs


Nursing home residents felt better spending time with real-life Sparky or robotic Aibo.

A visit by a friendly dog can help brighten a nursing home resident's day. Now a new study shows it may not matter whether the dog is flesh-and-blood or plastic-and-battery.

Researchers at Saint Louis University's School of Medicine in St. Louis tested to see whether visits by a canine-either the medium-sized gentle mutt Sparky or a Sony Aibo robotic dog-helped to curb loneliness. Both did-and in nearly equal amounts.

Researchers separated 38 nursing home residents into three groups. One saw Sparky for 30 minutes each day in their rooms, another group saw the Aibo for the same amount of time, and a third group didn't have visits from either. Those who spent time with Sparky or the Aibo both reported nearly equal levels of attachment to the animal or robot as well as decreased loneliness.

Possibilities are enormous for robotic assistance for the elderly, says William Banks, MD, professor of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University. A health companion in a home or rest home could follow residents, giving them reminders on when to take medication and sending an alert if they fall.

"A person could get tired of a robot following him around. But if you could change that inanimate voyeur to a personal part of his life and a companion, that could be entirely different," Banks says.

The research was published in the March issue of the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association.

If you're feeling blue and want your own Aibo, you'll be sorry to hear Sony discontinued the dog and its consumer robotics division back in 2006. You can snag an old Aibo dog, however, on eBay. The most expensive ones are going for more than $3,000 (the original price was still high: $2,000).

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