A special robot with 24 fingers has been developed for hair washing and head massage, useful if a person has limited arm movement.
It is something Panasonic has also tried out in Japanese hair salons. The idea of using robotics to care for the elderly is being trialled everywhere from Singapore to Salford. The Spatio-Temporal Representations and Activities for Cognitive Control in Long-term Scenarios - handily referred to as the Strands project - at the University of Birmingham has received 8m euros (£6.69m) in funding from the European Commission. The Strands robot will begin trials with an Austrian care provider in May, starting with simple things such as checking fire doors remain unblocked and defibrillators are always present and in the right place.
"We're trying to free up more of the staff time," says Dr Nick Hawes. He says: "One of the biggest complaints of care home staff members is that they don't spend enough time doing the human interaction and the caring part. "We're looking at porter-type tasks and assistance tasks. If the robot could fetch the tray of medicine while the human talks to the residents instead of getting the tray and just dishing out the medicine because they're short on time, it increases interaction." But some projects are hoping robots can take a more active, and personable, approach to care.
A project in Salford is creating robots that "can help supervise people 24 hours a day", according to researcher Antonio Espingardeiro.
The Carebot P37 S65 can, among other things, be programmed with speech therapy and object recognition exercises to help people with dementia. Mr. Espingardeiro and his team are currently looking at the comparative advantages and disadvantages between robot care and human care, but he believes robots can provide meaningful interaction to supplement human contact. As with a lot of technology, reality is taking its lead from science fiction. In the recent film Robot and Frank, an elderly man is bought a robot rather than being put into a care home.
There is evidence that robots offering companionship are popular with the elderly. The most popular robot used by the older generation in Japan is Paro, a robot that will not help with the dishes, carry heavy items or administer medication. But it does look cute, a cross between a seal and a Furby children's toy. It offers companionship rather than any tangible medical or physical support.
And the emotional reliance on robots seems to go against current campaigns by various charities for the elderly. Age UK says half of all older people consider the television their main form of company and has set about a befriending service where people can volunteer to go around and chat with lonely people. It is a service that they think would make a big difference, in a way that robots cannot.
"There is nothing wrong with making smarter use of technology to help people manage health conditions and possibly stay independent for longer," says Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK. "However, it is always important to ensure technology is only used where it delivers real benefits and to recognise that it is no substitute for the human touch."
Some see the robots as threatening to take the place of care staff or loved ones. But with so many lonely elderly people, robots are seen by scientists working on robot projects as a first step. "Some robotic device in a lonely person's life might improve it," says Dr Hawes. "But that shouldn't disoblige society from finding new ways to give them human contact. "The idea that we can say, 'Hey, let's give them a robot and we don't have to worry any more' is the scrapheap approach."