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The use of AI toys to alleviate loneliness in nursing homes or skilled living facilities is something that has already seen some success. For some time, the use of therapy dogs to elevate patient mood has been an accepted course of treatment for many elderly patients. However, there are some challenges, such as allergies and hygiene concerns, which can prohibit the use of therapy dogs for some people. The use of electronic dogs has been shown to offer many of the same benefits as actual live therapy dogs for those people. In fact, according to William Banks, a professor of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University, "The most surprising thing is they work almost equally well in terms of alleviating loneliness and causing residents to form attachments" (Saint Louis University, 2008). In other words, electronic dogs can be a substitute for actual canine companionship.
Moreover, the benefit of these electronic pets goes beyond mere companionship; they can be helpful in scenarios where patients are experiencing more than loneliness. For example, the use of an AI toy seal named Paro to help patients in a nursing facility who were suffering from dementia showed not only an alleviation of loneliness, but also a general calming effect. Some of the patients developed strong relationships with the pet, acting almost like surrogate parents or grandparents in their treatment of the pet. Most notably, the affection was not dependent upon the toy's interaction with them, but would linger even after the toy powered-off (Harmon, 2010). Furthermore, while critics suggest that the robots would be limiting in such an environment, the anecdotal evidence suggests that the robots actually stimulate human interaction (Harmon, 2010). Finally, the patients benefitted from the companionship despite knowing that the animal was not actually alive.
Therefore, the AI tool suggested for use in the skilled nursing context is a toy marketed towards children, which is called a Furby. Furbys are small toys that interact with the user. They can interact with direct contact, as well as having related computer applications that can change their behavior. They speak to the user, and become more active after the user interacts with them on a regular basis. They speak a language called "Furbish," but will speak English after more communication. Perhaps most significantly, much of their behavior emulates that of a human infant. For example,
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