Robots help seniors learn to use technology in South Korea

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SEOUL, Nov. 9 (UPI) — In South Korea, one of the most digitally connected societies in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the growth of contactless technology in everyday life. But one group is finding itself struggling in a fast-changing world of communications apps, fast food-ordering kiosks and robot waiters: senior citizens.

The Seoul city government is trying to help bridge the digital divide with a new program that uses specially designed robots to teach seniors how to use smartphones and touchscreen kiosks. The program, which will teach 3,000 participants over the next three months at 17 facilities, launched last week.

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“Our goal is closing the digital gap between young people and seniors,” said Shin Eun-kyong, business outreach manager of the Seoul Digital Foundation, the city agency that is running the program in conjunction with five local district governments.

“There are many mobile devices, kiosks and digital devices these days,” she said. “But some seniors cannot use these devices by themselves. So we think this makes them feel isolated from society.”

At West Seoul Senior Welfare Center on Tuesday, a group of 10 seniors had their first experiences with a small robot named Liku, which used voice instructions, gestures and a specially modified smartphone to teach them how to use KakaoTalk, a ubiquitous messaging app used in South Korea.

Liku is connected to a central server and can answer roughly 200 conversational questions and provide information such as the current weather. The small black-and-white humanoid robot has expressive digital eyes and is designed to interact via facial recognition and voice responses.

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The city has worked for over a year with a local startup company called Torooc, which is developing Liku as a companion robot for home use, for the custom teaching application.

“We want the robots to be friendly,” Shin said. “We also think they have some advantages over teaching with humans face to face. It can be tiring to go over the same things over and over, but a robot can repeat the instructions until the seniors understand.”

For the first group of senior citizens to use the robots, it was a new experience but one they found largely positive.

“I’ve only ever used a robot vacuum before,” said Han Ok-dong, 73. “But this robot started teaching me step by step in a way that I can understand and that will stay in my head. I want to work with it more in the future and keep advancing.”

Han said she’s faced frustrations using smartphones and kiosks in her everyday life, as have other senior citizens at the center.

“I’m getting older, so its unavoidable that using [new technology] is getting more difficult for me,” said another 73-year-old, Yoon Kwang-soon.

Yoon said that it took a while to warm up to using the Liku robot, but that he hopes it will help him to also learn more advanced features on KakaoTalk, such as sharing photos.

“I wasn’t used to working with a robot so it felt unfamiliar to me at first,” he said. “But if I have time I want to come here and use it again.”

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A test program that was run for around 100 seniors in August found that 87% of participants were satisfied and that 83% wanted to continue in the program, according to the Seoul city government.

Also on display at the West Seoul center was a custom touchscreen kiosk that offers walk-throughs for a variety of real-world scenarios, such as ordering food or buying a movie ticket. Seniors were able to practice with a tablet app before using the kiosk to complete a transaction from start to finish.

Only two of the practice kiosk machines currently exist, but a wider rollout is planned for next year, said Shin of the Seoul Digital Foundation.

The digital training has become especially timely as South Korea is looking to make contactless — or “untact,” in local parlance — technologies a key part of President Moon Jae-in’s $62 billion Digital New Deal stimulus program.

The program is looking to position South Korea as a leader in addressing the surging demand for remote services driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. Projects include building smart hospitals for telemedicine and supporting small- and medium-size business with virtual conferencing. Investments will target untact technologies such as robots, drones, AI and 5G wireless networks.

Shin said that the city will expand the use of the Liku robots into new areas over the coming months, such as helping to educate seniors on avoiding phishing scams. They will also bring the robots to young children next year, with plans to utilize them for teaching subjects such as English.

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“The pandemic is changing society, and it is more important than ever to find non face-to-face ways to teach and to help everyone adapt to the untact world,” Shin said.