Social robotics at Philadelphia Zorg

Team Zorg Enablers
Published on
Implementations | Control & Monitoring


“To deliver care of comparable quality in the future, we need to start changing now and moving with the flow of developments,” says Greet Prins, chair of the board at Philadelphia Zorg. In 2016, the Dutch care provision organisation known as Philadelphia Zorg launched a long-term social robotics programme. The aim was to investigate how robots can provide added value in the support to people with learning disabilities. The ultimate goal is to foster self-reliance in the clients and enable them to get the best out of themselves. Obviously the support needs vary from client to client. The programme began with a Pepper robot named Phi. Every month, Phi lodges for a fortnight in the home of a different client, serving as a means of emotional release and helping with tasks such as maintaining a structured daily rhythm. Initial results have been promising, with the robots effectively enabling people to exert more self-direction in their lives. They provide stimuli such as reminding them, without intervention from a care provider, about things they need to do. Robots are non-judgmental, and clients determine for themselves what the social value of a robot will be. Robots can also take over routine tasks from care providers, thus creating more room for personal attention.

Phi has meanwhile made acquaintance with some 2000 people and stayed at around 10 locations. In 2018, experimentation was started with different social robots, including the iPal and Zenbo robots. “Yet a lot of issues are involved in sending a robot to stay with somebody,” cautions Xenia Kuiper, the social robotics programme manager at Philadelphia Zorg. Within the Philadelphia Zorg agency, the programme is being managed by a ‘robot team’, which forms the link between care providers, clients, their social networks and cooperating agencies. Philadelphia also collaborates, for example, in a co-creation project with the start-up company Robot Ctrl for the development and support of the robotic software. To further optimise the use of the robots, the team closely monitors the outcomes of experiments.

The robotic innovation programme is supplemental to the core process of care delivery, and it thus creates room within the organisation for experimentation and new initiatives. Care providers and clients take part in the ‘robot visits’ on a voluntary basis; participation encourages them to give practical expression to their intrinsic motivation. Several remaining hurdles still have to be dealt with. The price tag on the robots is one factor affecting the pace of developments. In addition, not all functionalities of the robots are now used to the full. Robots would be capable, for instance, of collecting all sorts of data, but safeguarding the privacy of clients and the security of the data is essential. Ethical issues also play a role, such as what to do about ‘friendships’ that develop between a social robot and a client. To be better prepared to address the ethical issues inherent in technology in the care sector, Philadelphia has created an Advisory Board on the Ethics of Human-Oriented Technology (EMT).

In the coming years, Philadelphia Zorg will continue to experiment and to gather additional input from clients. The ambition is to have more than 100 social robots in permanent service by 2020 in the provision of care and support to clients. Greet Prins emphasises that the robots are regarded as assistive devices supplementary to the existing care delivery process. Alongside this, Philadelphia has begun collaboration with Robot Ctrl to create a dedicated robot platform. In the future, the platform will help care providers to routinely program a social robot, in order to accommodate the robotic interactions to a client’s personal needs and wishes. This will put customised, robot-assisted provision within reach. It will be a further step towards the integration of social robots into the standard process of care delivery.


Philadelphia Zorg

Philadelphia is an agency for the care of people with learning disabilities, now serving over 8300 clients at over 500 locations. It employs 6700 staff members, supported by some 5500 volunteers. Philadelphia’s motto is ‘The Best out of Yourself’ – something the agency also seeks to achieve by engaging social robots.