Robot therapy for isolated elderly

22 May 2009

Robots: they’re usually either automated machines for mass manufacturing or quirky toys that amuse for a short while. But are there healthcare benefits to playing with robots? That would be a no to Transformers, but Paro, the robotic baby harp seal, is having a decidedly positive impact on the elderly, particularly on somewhat isolated individuals living in nursing homes.

Paro is designed to be held, hugged and comforted like a real pet, and even has tactile sensors that respond to touch and pressure and he moves his tail, arches upwards and blinks in response.

This robotic chum has synthetic but antibiotic fur, cries like a real baby seal and also responds to sound. His sole purpose is to provide the therapeutic benefits of an animal companion but without the drawback of caring for a real one – something many elderly people would find difficult if not impossible.

In total Paro has five sensors: tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture sensors. This means that not only will the baby robot seal respond to voices and touch but he can also tell when night falls and will ‘sleep’ in accordance, awaking when sunlight and higher temperatures indicate morning.

His auditory processing means that he can also learn oft-repeated words such as names, phrases and praise.

Paro has been around since 2003; he was invented by Takanori Shibata, a researcher with the Intelligent System Research Institute of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Japan.

Quite apart from been generally good at keeping the elderly company, Paro has been proven to reduce stress levels, increase socialisation and improve symptoms of depression.

In fact, in 2005 the Kimura Clinic and Brain Functions Laboratory teamed up with AIST to carry out research, which found that out of the 14 people who participated in the study, seven experienced an improvement in brain function.

Paro is not the only robot to be used in therapy, in fact there are several socially intelligent ones that are being used for interacting with young children and have proven successful in socialising autistic children by providing a non-threatening buddy to explore the complicated human world of eye contact, body language and vocal intonation that can seem so overwhelming and baffling to those with autism spectrum disorders.

By Marie Boran