A couple of weeks ago Anne Tergesen from the Wall Street Journal called me to ask what I thought about “Paro the Baby Seal Robot.” It is a companion robot which is designed to contribute to the well-being of older people. She has filed her report and here it is…
I challenge you to watch this video all the way to end. (90 seconds)
Five years ago, a Japanese robot manufacturer introduced Paro to the world. Built to resemble a baby harp seal—with a plush coat of antibacterial fur—Paro was hailed in Japan as a pioneer among socially interactive robots, one that would help lift the spirits of millions of elderly adults.
Watch Japanese nursing-home residents interact with Paro, a baby seal pet-therapy robot.
It never quite caught on. “It doesn’t do much other than utter weird sounds like ‘heeee’ or ‘huuuu,'” says Tomoko Iimura, whose adult day-care center in Tsukuba City keeps its Paro in a closet.
Now Paro has come to American shores, appearing in a handful of nursing homes and causing a stir in a way that fake seal pups rarely do.
Nursing-home workers and academics who study human-robot interaction are trying to figure out whether the $6,000 seal, cleared last fall by U.S. regulators as a Class 2 medical device (a category that includes powered wheelchairs) represents a disturbing turn in our treatment of the elderly or the best caregiving gadget since the Clapper.
“Some of our residents need more than we as human beings can provide,” says Marleen Dean, activities manager at Vincentian Home, one of four facilities run by Pittsburgh-based Vincentian Collaborative System. Vincentian Collaborative recently used a $55,000 grant to purchase eight Paros and finds them especially comforting to patients with dementia. “We’ve tried soft teddy bears that talk and move. But they don’t have the same effect.”
Bill Thomas thinks it’s inhumane to entrust the task of emotional support to a gadget.
“If you give me a robot that helps perform mundane tasks associated with caregiving, such as vacuuming or doing the dishes, I’m all for that,” says Dr. Thomas, founder of the Green House Project, a campaign to make nursing homes smaller and more like regular houses. But “if we wind up with nursing homes full of baby-seal robots, the robots will be trying to fulfill the relationship piece of caregiving, while the humans are running around changing the beds and cooking the food.”