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Robots You Can Love

January 19, 2010


Have you ever wanted a fluffy, baby animal for a pet — especially one that stays forever young, never has to be fed, house-trained, spayed or neutered? Well the Japanese think they have just the animal for which you are looking. They call it PARO and it’s a loveable replica of harp seal, “the same adorable little creatures that are clubbed to death in their tens of thousands by Canadian fishermen each year” [“The serious truth behind the adorable PARO baby seal-bot,” by Loz Blain, Gizmag, 7 January 2010]. Blain reports that “PARO is an animatronic baby seal companion robot designed by some very clever people with one simple purpose in mind – to make you love him. From everything we’ve seen, he’s exceptionally talented at his job, melting the hardest hearts and bringing a big silly smile to everyone who meets him.” You might think the “serious truth” behind PARO is to get people to stop clubbing baby harp seals; but, you’d be wrong. Blain continues:

“Although he might be a wonderful toy, PARO’s real purpose is to address a serious problem that’s affecting Japan right now, and will soon spread across much of the Western world. Japan is facing serious demographic problems in the next 30 years – a slow birth rate in recent decades means that the population is aging at an alarming rate. Put simply, the Japanese tend to live longer than almost anyone in the world, but they’re having very few children – and it’s expected that by 2030, nearly a third of all Japanese citizens will be over the retirement age of 65. Nobody knows this better than the Japanese themselves, who are arming themselves with technology at a furious rate; they’re developing an astounding array of robotics to keep the country producing as the size of its workforce dwindles – they’re light years ahead of the West on things like lightweight, safe personal transport solutions, powersuit-style exoskeletons for the weak and infirm and domestic automation. There’s a massive economy developing to produce all sorts of technology that can help the elderly and disabled get on with a good quality of life while freeing up the younger generation to keep the country running. And while that’s going to be big business in Japan in the near future, it’s going to be big business across the western world in the longer term, because all the trends are pointing to lower birthrates across the first world that will put us all in a similar position.”

This is not the first post in which I’ve pointed out that Japan’s fascination with robotics stems from its desire to remain productive as its population ages. As one of the world’s most xenophobic countries, Japan doesn’t want an influx of immigrants to replace its aging work force (see my post entitled Demographics and Robots). For a more in depth discussion about global demographic changes, see my recent post entitled A New Year’s Look at Demographics. Returning to the subject at hand, the Japanese are developing robotic pets because studies have shown that animal-assisted therapy can reduce stress-induced symptoms. People who own pets require less medical care and live longer. One site that promotes such therapy reports:

“A study of 92 patients hospitalized in coronary care units for angina or heart attack found that those who owned pets were more likely to be alive a year later than those who did not. The study found that only 6 percent of patients who owned pets died within one year compared with 28 percent of those who did not own pets. The therapeutic use of pets as companions has gained increasing attention in recent years for a wide variety of patients -people with AIDS or cancer, the elderly, and the mentally ill. Unlike people, with whom our interactions may be quite complex and unpredictable, animals provide a constant source of comfort and focus for attention. Animals bring out our nurturing instinct. They also make us feel safe and unconditionally accepted. We can just be ourselves around our pets.”

Blain continues:

“As the Blues Brothers sang, everybody needs somebody to love. The therapeutic effect of companionship and affection is well understood to enhance both physical and mental wellbeing – it’s one of the reasons so many people keep pets. But pets can be a difficult proposition when you’re talking about the elderly. For starters, a significant proportion of elderly or disabled folk aren’t able to properly care for a pet – then there’s the fact that you can’t take them with you into a nursing home or hospital situation, because of all the fluff and fur and poop and mayhem and allergies they cause. Which is why animatronic pets like PARO, designed purely to tickle the nurturing and affection circuits in your brain, are starting to pop up – it’s less a matter of the Japanese being obsessed with everything ‘Kawaii’ (cute), and more to do with the fact that there will soon be a lot of lonely older folk around whose kids must, for society’s sake, be too busy working to give them as much time and affection as they need.”

Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) calls PARO a “mental commitment robot.” I would have thought that “companion robot” would have made PARO a bit more attractive! The AIST web site states that “Mental Commitment Robots are designed to provide 3 types of effects: psychological, such as relaxation and motivation, physiological, such as improvement in vital signs, and social effects such as instigating communication among inpatients and caregivers.” If everyone agrees that animal-assisted therapy is such a good idea, you might wonder why AIST selected a seal instead of a dog or a cat. Blain explains:

“AIST originally experimented with building animatronic cats and dogs as the obvious companions of choice, but quickly found that while such familiar animals were initially charming, they lost their appeal when people automatically started comparing them with real animals. The baby seal form is familiar enough to be cute and adorable, but because most people don’t know exactly how real baby seals behave, it’s easier to get across the comparison boundary and just enjoy the fluffy little robots for what they are. And what they are is exceptionally compelling, considering that this is very early days. Although real baby seals are nocturnal, PARO is awake during the morning and afternoon and gets ‘sleepy’ in the evening. It has five senses, and uses them to perceive touch, light, sound, temperature and posture. He’s programmed to behave as much as possible like a real animal, waking up a little dazed and confused, enjoying cuddles and pats, complaining if he wants attention or ‘food’ (a battery charge), and reacting with fear and anger to being hit. He gradually learns to respond to whatever name you keep calling him, as well as various other audio cues like greetings and praise. PARO knows where you’re patting him and reacts accordingly, nuzzling up to your hand or wriggling away if you’re touching him in places he doesn’t like. He closes his eyes and snuggles up when he’s happy and content, and gets angry if he feels mistreated. He blinks and bats his big eyelashes at you and meeps pitifully for affection. He particularly likes being treated and petted in familiar ways, which is a crucial part of developing a long-term relationship with his owners.”

That all sounds a bit too time-consuming for a harried business person, but PARO isn’t designed for them. It was designed for people with a lot of time on their hands. Blain reports, however, that at trade shows even the hard hearts of businessmen were softened. He concludes:

“We were lucky enough to watch PARO work his charms on a stream of very serious-looking Japanese businessmen at a robotic trade show in Tokyo. One after another, they looked at the little baby seal with consternation, then touched him or patted him once or twice, and then absolutely melted, each one walking away with a big goofy smile and generally feeling all the better for meeting him. Job done. PARO’s remarkable ability to cheer you up (yes, you, whether you like it or not. This little fella really gets under your skin) is disturbingly powerful right now – and of course, there’s going to be a version 2, 3, 4 and 5 in the next few years that will be even better at the job. Robot pets with all the emotional and wellbeing advantages of real pets, but that never poop, bite, scratch, dig holes, get sick or run away. They’re well on their way – and for an aging Japanese population, it’s not a moment too soon.”

Undoubtedly, robotic pets will find their way into the arms of children as well the elderly. Some less sophisticated versions of “pet” robots are already favorites with children, including uncuddly pets like Pleo the robotic dinosaur. Companion robots might one day even catch on with business people who decide that having a cuddly pet running around a high-stress office is good for morale.

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