As the world’s elderly population ages, there is a corresponding growth in the demands on health and social resources that affect virtually every sector of society. That said, a team of researchers wondered if that burden might be alleviated by artificial intelligence, specifically in the form of care-giving robots for the elderly.

Though much has been written on the topic of outsourcing caregiving to robots, researchers working on a European Union (EU)-funded project called CARESSES (Culture Aware Robots and Environmental Sensor Systems for Elderly Support), realized that in order to do that, the AI caregivers would need to be trained to appropriately respond specifically to the needs of the elderly — and in a way that encourages both trust and acceptance.

As such, researchers have attempted to construct the world’s first culturally competent robots; that is, the robots were designed to modify their speech and behavior to match the habits and culture of the person in their care.

"The idea is that robots should be capable of adapting to human culture in a broad sense, defined by a person's belonging to a particular ethnic group. At the same time, robots must be able to adapt to an individual's personal preferences, so in that sense, it doesn't matter if you're Italian or Indian," explained researcher Alessandro Saffiotti of project partner Örebro University, Sweden.

Over time and through communication, the robot will calibrate its knowledge by acclimating to the elderly person’s individual characteristics and cultural identity. Through that, the robot will be able to offer the elderly person in its care reminders to take medications as well as encouraging them to be active and to eat healthily. Likewise, the robot might also encourage the elderly person in its care to keep in touch with loved ones and friends as well as offering reminders about upcoming holidays and other dates of significance and recommendations about attire for a variety of occasions.

Though not intended to replace professional caregivers, the robots will play a critical role in helping to improve the lives of those they care for and, consequently, reduce the frequency of additional care.

Currently undergoing testing in care homes in Japan and the United Kingdom, the first CARESSES robots are tending to elderly participants from different cultures and backgrounds.

Researchers hope to determine whether or not those in its care feel more comfortable with a robot that interacted with them in a culturally sensitive way.

"The testing of robots outside of the laboratory environment and in interaction with the elderly will without a doubt be the most interesting part of our project," added Saffiotti.

The CARESSES robots may one day make way for culturally sensitive services outside of elderly care, according to researchers:

"It will add value to robots intended to interact with people. Which is not to say that today's robots are completely culture-neutral. Instead, they unintentionally reflect the culture of the humans who build and program them."

To contact the author of this article, email