Out in the Open

You're going to want to thank your grandmother's robot

When Emi Sasagawa’s family got her ageing grandmother a robot companion, she didn’t know how useful it would be.
Emi Sasagawa (Submitted by Emi Sasagawa)

"It felt as though she had lost the will to live," says Emi Sasagawa about her late grandmother.

Emi says her 86 year-old obaasan, who lived in Japan, started retreating from family life due to health issues that included dementia. 

Though Emi was skeptical, her family ended up buying her grandmother a robot companion named Unazuki Kabochan.

Kabochan is a small, doll-like robot able to hold conversations and meant to help the elderly with cognitive functions. 

"She would carry it in her arms and hold it like a baby, looking at it adoringly. She would groom it and clean it regularly. While dust accumulated on bookshelves and tables in my grandparents' home, Kabochan was always impeccable, spotless."

Emi says that Kabochan became of part of her grandmother's day-to-day life. It would wake her up, remind her to have breakfast and to do her exercises, ask how she was and sing songs with her. 

It also taught her family how to interact with their now elderly grandmother.

"It helped redefine what she was comfortable talking about, and what she was comfortable doing. So my family mimicked the robot...they asked her questions about how she was feeling and about what she wanted to do, and she was more responsive," Emi said. 
Emi Sasagawa’s grandmother and her robot Kabochan. (Emi Sasagawa)

Emi says that before Kabochan, they tried to help their grandmother, but that they "failed miserably."

"We knew my grandmother before dementia, and that shaped how we interacted with her. It shaped what we expected from her. Without wanting to, we were always hoping for the reaction she would have given before her illness — a similar smile, a similar conversation, a similar interaction. I think that weighed on her. It made being around us overwhelming to the point that she preferred to lock herself inside a room. 

"Kabochan didn't know my grandmother before her illness. It had no expectations of her or how she was supposed to respond. It made simple requests that she was able to deliver."

Emi's grandmother passed away two years ago. Kabochan sits on the shelf of her old home. 

"Having a robot didn't cure my grandmother's dementia. It didn't restore her mental faculties. It didn't give us the person who used to be there. But it did give us time where she was more present with us. And, it gave her time where she felt happy and connected."

This story originally aired on October 29, 2017. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Can Robots Be Human?".