Most of us are familiar with robots in many different areas of life. They’ve long been a staple in factory automation and are increasingly found in homes as vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers as well as children’s toys. But robots can also act as therapeutic aides, helping improve people’s cognitive and psychological well being.
PARO is an interactive robotic seal developed by the Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, or AIST. Now in its 8th generation, PARO is used in hospitals and elder care institutions to provide therapy to patients. It provides the proven health benefits of animal therapy by way of a robotic seal, without the concerns that come with live animals such as allergies, infections, bites or scratches.
Recently, I got the chance to meet PARO at the Robo Business Summit this fall in Pittsburgh. Jerry Vinther, Project Manager for Robotic Technology with the Danish Technological Institute, introduced me to PARO and told me of the Danish experiment with PARO in hospitals and nursing homes and of the positive results they’ve seen thus far.
I have to admit that I was a little skeptical at first, eyeing the white robotic seal on a table with what looked like a pacifier in its mouth connected to a cable of some kind. It turns out this is how PARO keeps its batteries charged.
Vinther invited me to pick up PARO and hold him, like you would a baby or a small pet. PARO is equipped with six different sensors for sensing light, posture, sound and tactile touch. So as soon as I held him, he began to respond as a living creature would. My brain’s biology (which I, like most people, probably only vaguely understand) responded in no time and I immediately lost the thought that I was holding an assemblage of motors, actuators, sensors, and cloth but instead was having an interaction with a living creature.
I was truly amazed, and could understand (and feel) the therapeutic benefits rather quickly. In fact, studies have found that interacting with a robot like PARO improves brain function in elderly patients with cognition disorders.
You can find out more about PARO at the robot’s web site here.
Learn more about the Danish Technological Institute PARO program here.
Video of PARO helping elderly Japanese after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami