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Dog vs. Machine

February 29, 2008 |  5:37 pm

Is it possible that robotic dogs could someday overtake their real-life counterparts when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of the lonely? Perhaps, the Associated Press reports: 

A study by Saint Louis University found that a lovable pooch named Sparky and a robotic dog, AIBO, were about equally effective at relieving the loneliness of nursing home residents and fostering attachments.

The study, which appears in the March issue of the Journal of The American Medical Directors Association, builds on previous findings by the researchers that frequent dog visits decreased loneliness of nursing home residents.

To test whether residents responded better to Sparky, a trained therapy dog, or a Sony-made robot dog, researchers divided 38 nursing home residents into three groups at a trio of long-term care facilities in St. Louis.

One group had weekly, 30-minute one-on-one visits with Sparky; another group had similar visits with AIBO; a control group did not visit with either dog. Their level of loneliness — determined by residents’ answers to several questions — was tested at the beginning and near the end of eight weeks of visits.

"Most of the elderly used Sparky, a 9-year-old, reddish-brown mutt with a white muzzle and floppy ears, as a confidant, telling him their life story,"  Marian Banks said.

"He listened attentively, wagged his tail, and allowed them to pet him,"  said Banks, who adopted and trained Sparky after finding him in an alley behind her home seven years ago.Those who visited with AIBO took a little longer — about a week — to warm up to the metallic creature. Over time, they grew more comfortable with AIBO, and petted and talked to him. He responded by wagging his tail, vocalizing and blinking his lights.

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