Loneliness is an epidemic.

According to a 2021 Survey Center on American Life, the number of Americans without close friends has quadrupled since 1990.

In step with this increase in loneliness and social isolation are potentially serious health consequences including the increased risk for mental illness, obesity, dementia and even early death. Some researchers have even likened this so-called epidemic of loneliness to being as harmful to human health as smoking cigarettes.

One solution to emerge in recent years to help alleviate loneliness, however, has been the companion bot. Considered a possible answer to loneliness, many different iterations of so-called companion bots have emerged. Follow along with GlobalSpec as we examine some of the most recent companion bot iterations.

A bot that finds stuff

A companion robot designed to help dementia patients locate lost items — keys, medicine or glasses — has been developed by engineers from the University of Waterloo in Canada.

To develop the artificial intelligence (AI)-driven companion robot for a population particularly vulnerable to loneliness, the team employed a Fetch mobile manipulator robot, which is outfitted with an arm capable of manipulating objects and that possesses multiple sensors and cameras.

Source: University of WaterlooSource: University of Waterloo

The companion robot was then programmed with an object-detection algorithm that enables it to detect and track specific objects entering its field of vision.

According to the engineers, users can select the objects they want to track via a graphical interface on smartphones or computers. In the event that the item in question needs to be located, users can search for it via the graphical interface, which reportedly prompts the robot to indicate when and where the object was last seen.

A pandemic companion

At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, when social distancing rules were still being followed, students from the University of Manitoba in Canada created a social robot to help ease the loneliness many felt amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The so-called SnuggleBot was a robotic stuffed narwhal companion designed to physically comfort, engage and give a sense of purpose to those isolated and socially distanced from others during the global pandemic.

According to its developers, the care and attention required of the SnuggleBot gives its user a sense of purpose, thereby improving his or her wellness and motivation during lockdown. One of the tasks users of the SnuggleBot had to perform involved keeping the robotic companion warm by periodically heating its accompanying microwaveable pouch.

Additionally, the narwhal’s horn changed color according to its needs, indicating that it was lonely or cold, thus requiring the user to respond. Likewise, the narwhal flapped its tail when hugged or cuddled, indicating that its needs were being met.

Watch the accompanying video that appears courtesy of the University of Manitoba to see how the SnuggleBot operates.

A friend to children

A companion robot from AvatarMind Robot Technology dubbed “iPal” has been designed to help children to feel less lonely. According to its developers, the robot was designed as both a babysitter and companion for children. It is capable of telling jokes, conducting math lessons and interacting with the child — all through a tablet screen mounted on the robot’s chest.

Source: iPalSource: iPal

Standing as tall as a typical five-year-old child, iPal can speak two languages. Further, the robot monitors the children in its care using facial recognition technology. Likewise, absent parents can also talk to their children or observe the interactions via a smartphone app that lets them see and hear everything taking place.

A “hand-holding” bot

Researchers from Japan’s University of Tsukuba have developed a hand-held soft companion robot for patients undergoing potentially unpleasant medical procedures such as injections.

The soft, fur-covered robot dubbed Reliebo attaches to the wearer’s hand and features small air sacs that inflate in response to hand movements.

Source: University of TsukubaSource: University of Tsukuba

During testing, participants wearing the robot reported less pain compared to those not wearing the device when a painful thermal stimulus was applied. The robot’s developers believe that Reliebo mimics the sensation of human touch and consequently reduces fear and alleviates the perception of pain during medical procedures.

Looking at future possible applications for the robot, researchers suggest that Reliebo could serve as a substitute for human contact in the case of another pandemic, for example.

A companion and pet sitter

LG Electronics’ has recently announced the debut of its so-called zero-labor smart home robot.

According to LG, the small, two-legged robot relies on AI to move autonomously. In addition to performing surveillance and environmental monitoring tasks in the home, the zero-labor robot can perform household chores, serve as a companion and pet sit the family dog by allowing users to see their pets while they are at work. The robot is also able to communicate with household members thanks to features like voice and image recognition as well as natural language processing.

This is just a sampling of the companion bots helping users to stave off loneliness. Check back with GlobalSpec for more on this and other topics.

To contact the author of this article, email mdonlon@globalspec.com