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Robot shakes things up for Singapore seniors

At 89-years old, Chan Yit Yoong lives alone in a one-room apartment and gets around with the help of a walking stick. Every Wednesday morning, she heads to Lion Befrienders, a senior activity center in her neighborhood, to exercise with a prototype robot named Xuan.

"Look," Chan says while holding up her right hand and bending her fingers with noticeable difficulty.

"Before Xuan-xuan came, all my fingers couldn't bend properly, but now it's only the index finger that has that problem," she tells CNBC.

As part of a "Digital Inclusion" initiative, Singapore's government, together with Ngee Ann Polytechnic, developed the RoboCoach, a robot exercise instructor for the elderly.

Participants of the RoboCoach program -- mostly above 70-years old -- sit on chairs while intently following Xuan's instructions and demonstrations of upper-body exercises, set to the beat of popular oldies such as ABBA's "Mama Mia."

CNBC Asia

"The novelty of having a robot conduct their exercises is refreshing to our seniors," says Chey Chor Khoon, executive director of Lions Befrienders, in a CNBC interview. Lion Befrienders is the first senior activity center to test the RoboCoach program with elderly participants.

"You can see that those who participate in the program are more enthusiastic about exercise," Chey adds.

The RoboCoach program is part of a larger effort to help various segments of society, including the elderly to "enhance their quality of life and create more opportunities" through technology, says the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), a government statutory board responsible for the Digital Inclusion initiative.

Interaction with the RoboCoach is also more dynamic than follow-the-leader type exercises, as Xuan can also "engage the elderly with some basic conversation" in a bid to get them more comfortable with smart technology, says Li Yinbei, RoboCoach project supervisor and engineering lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

The prototype robot can respond to voice commands or questions, so the user can actually check the weather or the latest news by asking the robot, which extract this information from the internet," Li said.

In addition, the RoboCoach has the potential to be more than just an exercise instructor and could be used to target the problem of social isolation that so many seniors face, Li notes.

"We could include more features so that the RoboCoach can be a companion for the senior citizens who live alone at home," he says.

The use of robots to improve the quality of life for senior citizens is not a novel concept.

In Japan, there is the Robear, which is a robotic caretaker for the elderly. Earlier this year, American toymaker Hasbro also introduced "Companion Pets," which are robotic cats "designed to bring comfort, companionship and fun for your elder loved ones" with realistic fur and purrs.

Singapore announced a $2.1 million nation-wide plan in August to "help Singaporeans age confidently and lead active lives, with strong bonds with family and community," according to official sources. This plan comes on the back of Singapore's impending demographic crisis, with a fast-ageing population and shrinking workforce.

It was only in recent years that Singapore began the ramping up efforts towards more age-friendly facilities and infrastructure, such as the installation of lifts on every level of public housing apartment blocks and more wheel-chair friendly ramps in public spaces.

The three-pronged action plan aims to empower seniors to "live long, live well and age confidently," building an intergenerational cohesive community, and to work on an "age-friendly city," with structures in place to support seniors.

Some of the plan's initiatives, include co-locating eldercare and childcare facilities in new housing developments to encourage the young and old to interact, as well as a "National Silver Academy" offering a wide range of educational programs targeted at senior citizens.

"Teaching seniors how to use technology will help them feel like they are a part of our society, and not left out," says Chey, executive director of Lions Befrienders. "We don't want them to feel like this is not their world.

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