Hasbro, Brown University team up to develop A.I. pets for seniors

Photo courtesy: Hasbro

PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – Two Rhode Island powerhouses have teamed up to develop an intelligent robotic companion that’s designed to help senior citizens, especially those with dementia.

Hasbro already sells Joy for All cats and dogs for about $100. But now researchers at Brown University are working to enhance them with artificial intelligence.

The project is called ARIES – Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support. The cat or dog is outfitted with a tiny processor and sensors for sight, sound and touch to interact with their user and log information in order to help seniors and people with mild dementia remember what they otherwise might forget.

Bertram Malle, a professor at Brown University, is one of several researchers working on the project, funded by a $1 million National Science Foundation grant.

“It makes itself known and reminds the person – [it] might point towards the medication box that the person hadn’t thought of,” Malle explained.

Hasbro’s original animatronic – the Furby – paved the way for this kind of technology back in the ’90s. But the Pawtucket toy maker’s target audience has traditionally been children.

Ted Fischer, Hasbro’s vice president of business development, said the company’s designers created the Joy for All companions when they realized some customers were purchasing similar toys for an older crowd.

“We brought a group of seniors into our fun lab,” where they tested the lifelike toys, said Fischer. “It was about 30 walkers and wheelchairs, so it was a very different audience and it was as much fun, if not more fun, to have this group of folks in there.”

Shortly thereafter, the partnership between one of the country’s largest toy manufacturers and the Providence Ivy League school was born. The idea: to take the toys and equip them with artificial intelligence, making them more than just a fun plaything.

“Our idea was, we can bring expertise for the artificial intelligence, for the mechanics and the human, robot-interaction side,” said Malle. “They are one of the best companies to build at a very small scale and an affordable scale, something that can really be distributed to a lot of people.”

“We were neophytes in this space, in this aging and senior space, but Brown and Brown Medical have an incredible geriatric department,” Fischer said.

Patrick Marr, Hasbro’s director of model development, took Eyewitness News on a tour of the model shop where everything from skeletons, eyes, and the motherboards that power the animatronics are made.

Just a few miles away, inside Brown’s robotics labs, researchers are working on the cutting-edge technology that they hope will allow these toys to one day communicate with users, smartphones and computers.

“Knowing that we can bring what Hasbro brings to the table and layer that with what Brown has also meant to our local community, but doing it together to have a broader local impact – hugely powerful and super exciting,” Fischer said.

The project is expected to take three years to complete. Brown hopes to have a working prototype by next summer and to test the product with a group of senior citizens by year two.

Once the product is finished, it will be up to Hasbro to decide if and when it will hit store shelves.