It looks like a scene from the old futuristic cartoon “The Jetsons.”

In a room in the engineering building on a cool April morning on the University of Denver’s campus, a robot is teaching yoga and meditation to a few folks in their 60s and 70s. Real people, not cartoons. And the robot? Yes, he’s real, too. All too real. He’s called Ryan, which means “little king,” “illustrious” or “smart.”

In a soft, soothing male voice, Ryan said, “Now reach your arms out in front of you.” At the same time, Ryan slowly raises his arms.

His students seem to like him.

“He’s got the bluest eyes; he’s really good. And his movements are interesting —  they’re a good contrast to the meditation,” said Barbara Kreisman, 72, one of Ryan’s pupils.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

A robot named Ryan leads a yoga class at the University of Denver engineering school on April 27, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

The class is part of a study by DU’s school of engineering and graduate school of professional psychology to see if socially assistive robotics can improve range of motion, mindful-attention skills, and general wellbeing for those aged 65 and older.

In essence, Ryan is in training to become a kind of super social worker.

Dr. Mohammad H. Mahoor, a DU engineering professor and owner of DreamFace Technologies, the Denver-based startup that built Ryan, said the robot has been helping people who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disabilities at several Denver-area assisted living centers since 2016.

“Overall, the seniors felt the robot helped them maintain their schedule, improved their mood and stimulated them mentally,” Mahoor said.

Ryan is loaded with artificial intelligence that allows him to start and maintain conversations, respond to questions, make facial expressions, track movement and even recognize emotions by observing facial expressions.

A screen that looks a lot like an iPad is attached to Ryan’s torso and features a music player, narrated photo albums, a video player and games intended to reduce cognitive decline associated with dementia. And he can remind people to take their meds and keep their appointments.

Ryan also tracks the information gathered about people’s emotions, data that can help caregivers respond to needs.

Sean Mapole, the principal investigator for the study at DU, said he has no doubt that socially assistive robots will have a role to play in assisted living facilities. “We’ll absolutely see them in these facilities this year, next year and certainly in the next five years, and their role will be growing. That’s because the technology is there, but also because there’s a shortage of health workers. There are not enough caregivers to have yoga classes or to even have conversations with adults on a daily basis, and those are two roles that Ryan can fulfill.”

Mahoor said DreamFace could have more than 100 Ryans working at assisted living facilities by 2027, each one leased for about $1,000 per month.

“We’ll see how the demand goes, but we have learned that — especially during the pandemic — robots really can help people,” Mahoor said.

“Can Ryan replace a live human being in leading exercise?” asked Kreisman. “I think the answer is ‘yes.’ ”

 

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