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Cuddly Robot Comforts the Elderly

Baby Seal Soothes Stress and Increases Motivation


Paro. (C)AIST

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A robotic baby seal born in Japan is bathing in the international spotlight, particularly in Denmark, where it is set to come into widespread use as a companion for residents of nursing homes. Paro is a therapeutic robot developed by Shibata Takanori, senior research scientist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST). It can recognize people's names and responds with seal-like sounds when stroked or spoken to.

Robotic TherapyA therapeutic robot is a robot that provides people with psychological benefits, such as amusement and comfort. Such robots can serve as "pets" in nursing homes for the elderly, hospitals, and private homes. The therapeutic robot Paro is made to resemble a harp seal pup (harp seals inhabit the northern Atlantic and Arctic oceans). It is 57 centimeters long and weighs 2.7 kilograms. Like its real-life counterparts, Paro has a plump, white body and endearing features. Hand-attached eyelashes and hand-trimmed facial fur make the face of each Paro unique.


Japanese women interact with Paro. (C)AIST

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Paro resembles real seal pups not only in appearance but also in behavior, thanks to its artificial intelligence and suite of sensors. It grows active or sleepy with changes in time. Its face lights up with joy when held in a person's arms, but it gets angry when hit. The head and legs add complexity to its range of emotional expression by moving differently according to the situation. Furthermore, Paro understands simple words like greetings and compliments and responds with calls and facial expressions. Its voice is based on surveys of harp seal pups conducted in the ice fields of northeastern Canada.

International SuccessParo is the fruit of animal robot research that began in 1993. In 2002 it was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as "the world's most therapeutic robot." Trials carried out in nursing homes between 2003 and 2004 showed that Paro increased pleasure and decreased stress among care recipients and alleviated anxiety among caregivers.


Danish women enjoy time with Paro. (C)AIST

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Animal therapy - providing elderly or sick people with opportunities to interact with dogs, cats, and other animals - has long been known for its psychological benefits. But keeping pets in welfare facilities, hospitals, and condominiums is fraught with potential problems, such as noise, hygiene, and allergies, so there have been high hopes for the development of robots that can take the place of real animals.

More than 1,000 Paros have been sold in Japan, where they are used in nursing homes and hospitals, as well as by private individuals. The seals have also been adopted on a trial basis in welfare facilities in 20 other countries, including Italy and Sweden. In Denmark, meanwhile, a decision was taken recently to introduce a large number of the baby seal robots. After a dementia center in Copenhagen conducted a trial using 12 Paro robots to verify their therapeutic effects, in November 2008 the Danish Technological Institute (DTI) announced that 1,000 of the electronic pets would be introduced at Danish nursing facilities by 2011.

The DTI plans to share the data it gains on the use of Paro with Japan's AIST, in the hope that the information will assist Japanese researchers as they further refine the robotic seal in the years ahead. (September 2009)

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