Paro is a cuddly white seal that squawks when you rub him under the chin, expresses emotion like happiness and annoyance, and gives you as much love as you need. It’s a robot–but in some deep sense it hardly matters. Paro makes people feel better, and that’s the point.
Paro, which was developed in Japan (of course), has been around for a few years, and been available in the U.S. (price $6,000) since 2010. Several nursing homes have brought in the furry seal as an alternative to dogs and cats, because he offers the benefits of real pets, but without the unruliness of animals (some residents may also be allergic).
It’s easy to dismiss a robot, and worry about a day when nursing homes cut costs by bringing in automation for everything. But people love Paro, it seems; and he’s especially liked among the hardest to reach part of the population, like elderly with various stages of dementia.
A recent study conducted in Australia took two groups of 18 mid- to late-stage dementia-suffering nursing home residents, and exposed the first to Paro for five weeks, and offered a normal activity (reading) for the second. The researchers found that the first group exhibited reduced “agitation, aggression, isolation and loneliness.”
According to Glenda Cook, a professor at Northumbria University, in the U.K., the study shows that robots “could enhance the life of older adults as therapeutic companions and, in particular, for those with moderate or severe cognitive impairment.”
Cook also notes that robotic animals could reduce the need for pharmaceutical drugs–which sounds like a good thing as well. She and her fellow researchers now plan to compare the reaction to Paro and real animals.