Robocat Will Touch The Hearts Of Hebrew Home Residents  

by Rosana Benites

If Leonardo da Vinci were alive today, he would undoubtedly refer to Max as a masterpiece. Indeed, the great Renaissance painter, engineer, musician, and scientist believed that the smallest felines, or cats, were a work of art. Five hundred years later, Max, the robotic cat at the Hebrew Home, is "living" proof that Leonardo's vision was correct.

RobocatMax is a one-year-old, real size, gray and black shorthair "cat;" this communication robot will be the key component in the newest research project to be conducted by the Hebrew Home Research Institute on Aging. The Research Institute is interested in learning if patients with dementia will respond positively to Max.

The Japanese-made robotic cat responds to human touch and human voice. Omron Corporation has programmed Max with artificial intelligence, life-like movements, and a vocabulary of 48 different cat noises. "He gets signals through his senses," says his master, Dr. Alex Libin, Hebrew Home Research Associate and an affiliated faculty member at the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University. "If you scratch or stroke him he will start purring." Like any other animal, Max likes to attract attention by meowing, waving his tail, and standing on all fours. If Max is rejected or pushed away, he immediately stops moving.

However, unlike real cats which need a litter box and cat food and which might wander, jump or scratch, Max is "fed" by a special battery, doesn't need toileting and feels so cuddly and tender you may confuse him with a plush animal.

"I expect this cat will help patients open their emotions," says Alex.

Alex is especially interested in using technology to improve the quality of life for Hebrew Home residents and he is enthusiastic about "robotherapy." He recently spent a month in Japan, where he was involved in developing this new kind of psychological therapy that uses robots to help those with special needs. Dr. Takeo Ojika, founder of the International Society on Virtual Systems and MultiMedia, sponsored Max's journey to the Hebrew Home.

Max is the only robot of his type in North America. Robotic cats like Max do not sell anywhere else outside Japan. Last year, Omron produced 5000 robocats at a price of $1,530 each.

Results seem promising. Medical experts have stated that touching diminishes feelings of loneliness and isolation and increases feelings of self- worth. The Hebrew Home Research Institute is currently seeking funds from private donors and scientific organizations in order to conduct the study and buy more robotic cats.

In the meantime, Max is happily mingling with Revitz House residents who easily mistake him for a real life cat. "I can guarantee he will like you," says Alex.

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