Pepper robot communicating with a researcher

Southend Council acquires social robot to assist with care

Image credit: Retogar

The Essex-based local authority acquired a model of the highly social robot in order to assist with delivering social care in the area.

Pepper – a child-sized, friendly-looking white robot – has been described as the world’s first robot capable of recognising emotions. Developed by SoftBank, it is used by researchers around the world to develop applications in social care and other sectors, and by some universities and companies for public engagement.

The robot displays an extremely high degree of socialisation, with subtle human-like abilities, such as keeping eye contact with a person while they are speaking, and adapting its behaviour to suit different people, based on what it has learnt about their preferences and personality.

Now, Southend-on-Sea in Essex has become the first place in the UK to acquire a Pepper robot for social care under an academic license, at the cost of approximately £20,000. Their robot took to the stage at the National Children and Adult Services Conference last week in Bournemouth, where it gave a presentation.

“I have met Pepper and he is very cute, kind, engaging and learning all the time,” said Cllr Lesley Salter, Executive Councillor for Health and Adult Social Care, in a statement. “He is an amazing addition to our equipment team and I really think he will be both popular and successful with staff and our local community, both young and old.”

“I am very proud that Southend –on-Sea is leading the way and we are all so excited to see what Pepper and this technology in general can do for our services and help us meet the well-known challenges that the social care sector faces.”

Now, the robot is being programmed by an equipment services team, in preparation for its duties when it is rolled out to the public, possibly as soon as December.

Humanoid robots are often discussed as being valuable in the health and care sectors due to their ability to perform repetitive, labour-intensive tasks – such as helping patients with disabilities move – and in doing so, allowing human staff to spend time on social tasks instead.

Pepper may not be able to lift objects or navigate confidently around new surroundings, but its basic social abilities could allow it to take on some social care duties, while human colleagues focus on one-to-one care (an area in which human staff still have the edge over robots).

The council is drawing up a heavy schedule of visits and other duties for Pepper. It will provide information and advice to visitors, engage children with physical and mental disabilities with games, music and videos, and even teach people to knit. It may be also be used to lead a reminiscence groups for dementia patients.

Although the UK trails far behind Japan in utilising robots to assist with delivery of healthcare and social care, the NHS has trialed the use of a cuddly robotic seal pup, PARO, to lessen stress and anxiety in dementia patients.

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