Medical researchers have for years looked at the health benefits of owning and caring for a dog, cat or other furry friend.
Now researchers are looking at the possible health benefits of a synthetic pet -- a robotic cat.
A husband-and-wife team from Georgetown University who have taken a serious look at a robotic cat believe it's an ideal way to assist people living with coronary artery disease, Alzheimer's disease and other ailments.
Alexander and Elena Libin are pioneers in the field of robotic psychology and robotherapy. According to Alexander Libin, robotic psychology examines "the compatibility between people's individual needs and preferences and robotic configuration."
Robotherapy focuses on those elements of human-robot interaction that can assist in a psychologist's evaluation and diagnosis.
The robotic cat that has caught the Libins' imagination is manufactured by Omron Corp. of Japan. Originally dubbed NeCoRo, the life-sized pet comes fully equipped with touch sensors in its back, chin and head, allowing it to automatically respond when stroked or petted.
First released in 2001, NeCoRo also has sound sensors in its ear and is designed to recognize the sound of its own name if repeated frequently. Though the feline can't walk, it can wag its tail, detect movement through an optical sensor, stretch its body, and meow, hiss and purr, depending on its "mood" and any environmental stimulation.
Through experimentation with human subjects, the Libins found that the robotic cat elicits more of a response than a simple plush toy.
"We used the plush cat and a robotic cat, and found that a robotic cat was more self-engaging and triggered positive emotions and interest more than the plush cat," he said.
The Libins also tested the robotic cat with a small number of individuals who are living with Alzheimer's disease, sensory disintegration disorder, attention deficit disorder and coronary artery disease. They found that interaction with NeCoRo resulted in greater feelings of interest and enjoyment for these groups.
Findings of the Libins' research into robotic pets are scheduled to be presented today at the Future of Health Technology Summit, hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
Renata Bushko, chair of the Future of Health Technology Institute in Hopkinton, Mass., which is sponsoring today's conference, believes the robotic cat may have medical applications beyond positive feelings.
"Robocats will be very useful in disease management [by] reminding patients to take medication at a certain time," she said in an e-mail.
Bushko also believes the robotic cat might make available the therapeutic benefits of pet ownership to people who are not physically or mentally capable of caring for a real animal.
Some research supports the belief that pets can lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and feelings of loneliness and isolation. These findings have been criticized by some researchers as flawed, however, and more rigorous studies may be needed.
Alexander Libin is expanding his research into the health implications of human-robot interactions by looking more closely at elderly populations living in nursing homes.
"We're participating in an ongoing study with assisted-living facilities for people living in these kinds of special settings," he said. "We're reaching out to new populations."