By Laura del Rio
Paro likes to be pet on the head and wag its tail. As the white baby seal follows people’s movements with its big black eyes, it’s hard to believe the pup is actually a therapeutic robot.
Paro is designed to treat people with Alzheimer’s disease, autism and other conditions. Japanese inventor Takanori Shibata says he was inspired to create the robot seal by therapies using real animals.
“Interaction with animals improves the mood of the people, motivates people and also improves depression and anxiety,” he tells DPA in the Spanish capital, Madrid. But some people are allergic to animals, which can also transmit diseases, he says.
“At hospitals, nursing homes or other facilities, it is difficult to keep and manage animals,” he observes, adding that the upkeep for them also costs a hefty sum.
It occurred to him that an animal robot could make such treatments more widely available, and he designed prototype robots in the form of a dog, a cat and a seal.
Patients found the seal the easiest to relate to, because unlike with dogs and cats, they had no expectations about how it should behave.
“When they [started] to interact with the dog robot or cat robot ... they compared the robot with ... real dogs or cats and they expected too much of the robot,” Shibata said.
“In the case of the seal robot, people ... just accepted it.”
The robot’s original name, Paro, means “stoppage” in Spanish, and it was therefore renamed Nuka for the Spanish market. The robot learns its new name after hearing it several times, Shibata explains.
The furry seal contains sensors that allow it to perceive what is happening in its surroundings, to recognise light and to know where a voice is coming from. It looks at the person talking to it, makes whining noises and sucks a dummy.
The robot, which costs about 5,600 dollars, has been in use since 2003 in more than 30 countries, including Japan, Denmark and the United States.
Shibata says that research on people with Alzheimer’s or similar diseases has shown that the company of Paro/Nuka can reduce depression, anxiety and loneliness.
“People with dementia tend to have behavioural problems ... but the interaction with Nuka can suppress such negative behaviours [as] agitation, depression, wandering, walking around,” he adds.
In Spain, the therapeutic effects of Nuka have been analysed in the city of Salamanca by the State Reference Centre (CRE), which is linked to the Institute of Elderly People and Social Services (Imserso).
The seal robot improved patients’ quality of life by helping them relax, improving their mood and lowering their blood pressure, says Elena Gonzalez Ingelmo from CRE.
However, the robot did not make a big difference for serious states of anxiety and depression, she said.
Patients found a real dog more enjoyable than Nuka, but both generated “very positive emotional aspects” in them, Gonzalez Ingelmo adds.
Dementia patients have also been given dolls, which can make them less agitated, but they do not have the same impact as Paro/Nuka, according to Gonzalez Ingelmo and Shibata.
Patients accompanied by the robot have been able to reduce their intake of psychoactive drugs, which “have a lot of side effects,” Shibata says.
Some people have questioned whether it is ethical to confide the care of human beings to robots, but Paro’s inventor stresses that it does not replace human caretakers.
“Robots can assist or help the caregivers” by calming the patients and making it easier to communicate with them, he says.
Paro may also be able to provide company to not just elderly patients, says Shibata, who now wants to send the robot to space.
The seal robot could accompany astronauts on longer missions, on which they are isolated and can get very lonely, he says.
“Interacting with Paro can improve the conditions on a spaceship or at a base on Mars, so Paro would be a very good companion for astronauts.” – DPA
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