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NANJoke-; telling robots helping to entertain Midlands OAPs EXCLUSIVE.

Byline: CATHERINE LILLINGTON

HAVE you heard the one about the robot who has pensioners in tears - of laughter? But wait, there's no punchline. Because it's no joke.

Just like the metal mickey-takers in the classic Cadbury's Smash adverts, robots have started entertaining Midland OAPs.

And laughter has been proving the best medicine for elderly audiences.

The man behind the bizarre project is boffin Antonio Espingardeiro, who has been working with 80 pensioners as part of his PhD thesis.

He has programmed his robots to tell jokes, sing, dance and call out exercise movements.

One Walsall group of elderly fans laughed at the jokes, listened to Cliff Richard, The Beatles and classic folk song Danny Boy.

"It was very interesting to entertain the oldies," says Antonio.

"One of the robots told a joke. A wife says to her husband: 'If you want breakfast in the kitchen, then sleep in the kitchen'.

"Then there was the music. They are amazing, those songs.

Performance "The elderly were surprised because they don't hear that type of music in today's centres or on television.

"As soon as the robot started dancing to the sound of Cliff Richard, the oldies started performing all the gestures with their own arms and hands - but their gaze was firmly focused on the robot."

One woman taking part in early sessions was 111-year-old Victoria Southan, who has since passed away, but was the fourth oldest person in the UK.

Victoria, who was born at the turn of the 20th century and named after Queen Victoria, had continued to live alone at her Streetly home until being admitted to hospital just three weeks before her death last November.

In July 2000, she was one of 15 centenarians invited to St Paul's Cathedral to celebrate the Queen Mother's 100th birthday - and, like the Queen Mum, had a great sense of humour.

"It was really amazing," says Antonio. "I remember she sat in front of the robot and she really understood the message.

"She mentioned to me 'That's a marvellous machine'. I'll never forget this because it was a very sentimental moment where the old meets the new.

"There is this attitude we have in our DNA. Whether you're a child of five years old or 111, we're fascinated by these machines."

The robots proved so popular at the Black Country sessions that even the postman and window cleaner joined in.

Robotic cats were also taken along to meet the pensioners in Walsall, and were purr-fect for the pensioners. Callum Fowler, day centre manager of Alrewych Court, said meeting the robots brought the confi-dence of elderly people back.

"For them to see that technology firsthand and be a part of testing it was just amazing," he said. "All I would hear was 'Are we having the robot man back?'" Looking long-term, Antonio believes robots could one day live with the elderly in their homes - but warns there is a danger that vulnerable people could become too attached.

"This experience is both fascinating and dangerous," he explains. "We saw these people asking for the robotic cats every week. We're just scratching the infancy of interaction between humans and robots."

catherine.lillington@trinitymirror.com Make 'em laugh What do you get when you cross a robot and a tractor? A trans-farmer Who wrote the book on robots? Anne Droid What do you call a robot who tells dirty jokes? R2 Doo Doo When does a robot need training? Whenever it gets rusty. What do robots order at takeaways? Micro Chips

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RAISING A SMILE: Antonio Espingardeiro and Vicky Southan and one of his robots.
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Sep 2, 2012
Words:600
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