Talking robots that interact with older adults might soon become a fixture in senior care homes in the United Kingdom as a way to help fight loneliness and boost mental health.

Researchers have been conducting experiments with care home residents in Britain and Japan on the effectiveness of Pepper, a fully autonomous human-shaped robot, which features a tablet that can play music. Pepper, produced by Softbank Robotics, is designed to not just ask and answer questions but also to engage in and sustain conversation, researchers say. It’s also culturally competent, in that it can respond to the culture-specific needs and preferences of older adults.

Findings from their evaluations have shown that care home residents who interacted with Pepper for up to 18 hours over the course of two weeks saw a significant improvement in their mental health. After two weeks of using the system, researchers also found a small but positive impact on loneliness severity among users. 

Pepper is part of a global project known as CARESSES and jointly funded by the European Union and the Japanese government, which is investigating the use of artificial intelligence in caring for older adults.

Chris Papadopoulos, Ph.D., lead author of the evaluation of the three-year project, described the study as “groundbreaking,” adding that “the results show that using the CARESSES artificial intelligence in robots such as Pepper has real potential benefit to a world that is witnessing more people living longer with fewer people to look after them.”

Papadopoulos estimated, however, that it could take another two to three years to get units into facilities.