Anyone who has loved a pet knows the comfort and joy we feel in the company of our animals. And these feelings aren’t just in our heads. Scientists have shown how animals can produce actual physiologic changes in the human body, including lower blood pressure and heart rates, and reduced muscle stiffness. Cortisol (the stress hormone) declines and oxytocin (the cuddle hormone) is released. Somehow, animals buffer the physiological effects of stress and anxiety, and that offers enormous therapeutic potential.
But having live animals in a health care facility comes with drawbacks. Animals shed and cause allergies; they require time, money, and energy to care for; they can transmit disease; they carry fleas and ticks; and, if provoked, they can bite. Even the best dogs have their limits.
In 1993, Dr. Takanori Shibata, an electronic and mechanical engineer, witnessed the dreary environment of a nursing home and became inspired to build an animal-like robot that would decrease a person’s social isolation, relieve boredom and loneliness, and help stimulate conversation between people.
The Japanese government, anticipating the “demographic tsunami” of retiring baby boomers, was quick to get behind the project and put Shibata, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), at the helm. Paro – a word that combines the first syllables of the Japanese words for “personal robot” – was first introduced in 1998; now in its ninth generation, it is used as a clinical tool in 30 countries.
Paro is perhaps the most famous member of a new class of devices called “socially assistive robots,” whose purpose is to stimulate meaningful and positive social and emotional communication. Paro responds to the human voice and to touch. It can detect the direction of the human voice and understands simple words and phrases (the level of vocabulary we use with pets and babies, programmed in English, Japanese, or one of five European languages). It can recognize its posture when being held, an indicator of whether the person is calm or agitated. Its vocalizations (made from digitally-sampled baby seal sounds) have a discernible emotional range. It can move its head, neck, eyelids, flippers, and tail.
Wrap all of this in soft white fur (actually artificial hair treated with an antibacterial solution), add a warm body temperature and a sweet flipper wiggle when it’s “happy,” and you’ve got an irresistible package, programmed to evoke a nurturing, emotional response.
Why a seal? Shibata found that people quickly lost interest in mechanical cats and dogs – animals that they already knew well. But a seal was less familiar, and people readily accepted it.
Paro may be a state-of-the-art robot containing a sophisticated artificial intelligence, but at Patriots Landing, a Careage continuing care campus in DuPont, Washington, she’s “Molly,” and she spends most of her time working with residents in memory care. Caregivers here say that Molly often helps comfort residents experiencing mild levels of agitation. They willingly interact with Molly, even laugh. Some people sing to Molly, or try to feed her their snacks. They become more sociable — with each other, and with their caregivers.
But not every person responds the same way to Molly, says Gregg Mundell, the Resident Care Coordinator at Patriots Landing, where most of the residents had careers in the military. Mundell has observed that people who have had pets or children respond to her more readily. And women are usually more receptive than men, although even the male, retired four-star generals – the strong, silent types – can turn to mush over her sweet coos and big black eyes.
Shibata is careful to stress that Paro was created not to replace human connection, but to facilitate and enhance it. “Paro is a tool to encourage interaction between the elderly person with dementia and the caregiver and therapist,” he says. “Elderly people with dementia do not show interest in things. They live inside a shell. But when they interact with Paro, they come to the outside.”
Scientists in Japan, the U.S., Australia, and Europe are conducting studies on Paro’s effectiveness in a variety of clinical settings, including dementia, developmental challenges, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and cancer therapy. Researchers find that Paro can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, wandering, and aggressive behavior. Dementia patients need fewer antipsychotic drugs, and Paro doesn’t have those medications’ negative side effects.
At the UC Irvine Medical Center, patients with ovarian cancer who interacted with Paro during three- to five- hour chemotherapy session reported reduced pain and anxiety and enhanced quality of health. In 2009, Paro became the first cognitive therapy robot to be approved as a Class II neurological therapeutic device by the FDA.
Anecdotally, therapists have seen patients who haven’t spoken in more than a decade suddenly start talking while holding Paro. And recently, at Patriots Landing, a woman with dementia who was generally unresponsive exclaimed, “Get that animal off the table!” to the surprise of everyone in the room. A rejection for Paro, but a breakthrough for the patient.
Shibata says that future generations of Paro will be custom-made for specific clinical applications – the Paro for dementia patients will respond differently than, say, the Paro for children with autism. And some day, JAXA, Japan’s national aerospace agency, will take Paro to its research station on the surface of Mars, now in development. Like a pet on Earth, Paro will help relieve the astronauts’ stress and isolation during the three-year mission, and enhance their communication and connection.
It may seem strange that a robot can bring forth our best human qualities – to love and be loved, to accept others just as they are, to connect, to communicate. But Paro is, after all, the creation of caring human beings who are committed to using technology as a tool for kindness.
Teri Thomson Randall is a journalist, photographer, and filmmaker residing in Seattle. Her writing experience spans the arts and sciences, including staff writing positions at the Journal of the American Medical Association and Pasatiempo, the weekly arts magazine of the Santa Fe New Mexican. She holds graduate degrees in microbiology, science communication, and film production.