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Grandma's new friend is wired

A robot that looks like a baby seal and a mechanical dog can be used as companions for the elderly. But some question if that's a good thing or just a way to assuage guilt.

October 17, 2011|By Karen Ravn, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Paro is made to look like a baby harp seal.
Paro is made to look like a baby harp seal. (Dominic Bracco Ii, Washington…)

It's a medical device that looks like a baby harp seal, and someday it just might be your best friend.

Which leads to some interesting questions. Like, Why would you want to hang out with a medical device? And, Is this a good idea?

The device is called Paro. It's cute and cuddly, with soft white fur, big bright eyes and — awww! — a pacifier to suck on. Casual observers could easily mistake it for a typical stuffed animal toy.

But Paro is no plaything. It's a robot specially designed to provide comfort and companionship to the elderly.

Evidence to date suggests that it works. This raises the hopes of many people concerned about the best way to care for a vulnerable population.

And raises the hackles of others.

The elderly have serious needs that often go unmet, says Maja Mataric, co-director of the USC Robotics Research Lab. "Robots aren't a panacea, but if they help people, if they can make their lives better, then what's wrong with that?"

What's wrong, others believe, is that robots are inherently deceptive.

"Robot companions are not companions," says MIT's Sherry Turkle, who studies the ways people interact with technology. "They are not competent to be companions."

Opinions on both sides converge on one point: Rapidly advancing robot technology presents challenging ethical issues for the healthcare community. At heart, it's a question of how the technology is used, says Dr. Tia Powell, director of the Montefiore-Einstein Center for Bioethics in the Bronx. "Every human tool can be used wisely or poorly."

Why make a robot that looks like a baby harp seal? Takanori Shibata, a research scientist in Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, was going for adorable when he designed Paro in 2003. And very young harp seals are definitely that, with spectacular snow-white coats to go along with irresistibly winsome faces. Mystery solved.

(Paro also sounds like a baby harp seal. Some find the strange squeals a baby harp seal makes quite resistible indeed, making this design choice rather less obvious.)

What can robots do?

Robots aren't just about being smart anymore. Paro, which was designated a Class II medical device by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2009, is only one of a growing category of robots classified as "social" because they're designed to interact with people instead of, say, trouncing them at Jeopardy.

Paro, available for $6,000 from Paro Robots U.S. Inc. in Itasca, Ill., is built to behave as though it's a real animal — maybe not a real baby harp seal, but a real baby of some species that lives indoors and craves being held and fussed over by humans. You can name it whatever you want, and it will "learn" that that's its name. It will also respond to how you treat it, acting happy when you're nice to it and unhappy when you're not. If you pet it, it will remember what it was doing beforehand and do it again (and again). But if you punch it or yank its tail (what kind of monster are you?), it will avoid doing whatever seems to have prompted that punishment.

These sorts of people skills are intended to make Paro a good companion for elderly patients in hospitals and extended care facilities, helping them feel less lonely, isolated, anxious and agitated.

Just ask Eve Anthony, chief operating officer of the Athens Community Council on Aging in Athens, Ga. The council uses a Paro named Bentley with individuals and groups in its adult day health center.

One client there is often so agitated that the staff has a hard time taking her blood pressure or even getting her to eat. "But we'll just hand Bentley to her, and it really calms her down," Anthony says. "She'll sit with him a long time and just pet him and love on him."

It takes data to really assess how much help robots can provide, of course, and a number of small-scale studies have made attempts at figuring this out. For example, a 2005 study published in Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation found that residents of a nursing home spent more time in the common areas and socialized more if a Paro was there too. Urine tests of the residents showed that their stress proteins went down after being around the little seal.

In another study, published in 2009 in the Journal of Advanced Computational Intelligence and Intelligent Informatics, nursing home residents interacted with Paros more than nine hours a day for a year. Afterward, researchers found that residents communicated more and had stronger ties to each other.

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