What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word robots? Is it a childhood memory of watching Will Smith running from hordes of red-eyed machines in iRobot that left you scarred for life? Is it Poo-Chi, the robotic dog that every 90s kid had? Furbies? Maybe you picture robotic-assisted surgery, ATMs or robotic assembly line machines. Perhaps you’ve started daydreaming about Rami Malek in Mr.Robot, or sweating nervously as you imagine the horrifyingly realistic automatons from Humans coming to life. More than likely, you’re reliving that glorious moment you finally, FINALLY got to see the newest instalment of Star Wars. Whatever the first image that popped into your brain may have been, it almost certainly wasn’t an artificial baby harp seal. However, it is an image you may be seeing in the near future.
In fact, a baby harp seal robot already exists. PARO, featured on The Simpsons as Bart’s science fair project and on Master of None as an old man’s companion, was developed by the Japanese Professor Takanori Shibata, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. PARO is an interactive companion robot, designed to act as an artificial form of animal assisted therapy in non-animal friendly environments, such as hospitals, assisted living and residential care. Professor Shibata was inspired by the harp seals he encountered on a trip to Canada’s North East. Then and there, he recorded the sounds that would later become PARO’s ‘voice’. As well as ‘speaking’, PARO sleeps when it’s dark, likes to be spoken to, stroked and remembers which of his behaviours you like, as well as those you don’t. Best of all? PARO’s charging cord is a pacifier which fits into the mouth. Practicality is it’s most adorable feature!
PARO first came to Australia when Kowa Australia – it’s distributor in Queensland – was established in 2014. General manager Yuji Miyoshi estimates that they have sold 120 PARO robots since they opened their doors. At Kowa, they sell for around $7,850 AU. This may seem like a steep price for a plush robotic seal, but Miyoshi says they reduce the need for medication to treat symptoms of depression and anxiety in patients with dementia. This could mean they are a cost-effective way to reduce the need for drugs in aged care.
Suzanne Heizer, senior Occupational Therapist in Home and Community Care, says she is concerned about the cost of delivery and staff shortages in this sector.
“The statistics are alarming. Robotics is an up-and-coming field, because the baby-boomers will soon outnumber the available caregivers” she said. For example, medication and meal reminders, environmental controls for temperature and shades, and reminders for basic daily tasks are all jobs that could be done by robots, instead of sending a human in at a higher cost.”
For example, Professor Wendy Moyle is still uncertain but optimistic. Professor Moyle is the Director of the Centre for Health Practice Innovation at Griffith University. She recently led a study on the effect PARO has on social engagement, communication and quality of life in people living with dementia in residential care. Professor Moyle says the study showed that staff were unable to understand how to use or fix the robots, due to lack of knowledge.
“The reason I started this study is because staff were keeping them in cupboards; they didn’t know how to use them.”
As well as technical difficulties, Professor Moyle thinks caregivers could benefit from training in how to introduce these robots to patients.
“You would have to think about how the person is going to react, how much information they need and what’s the best way of introducing it so they’re not anxious.”
“You need to have enough time to observe them with it. You need a very clear protocol as to how to remove that robot.” she says.
Professor Moyle thinks developers should consider PARO’s design. She is concerned that it’s too heavy for elderly patients at 2.3 kilos and sees the synthetic fur as a possible infection control issue. Professor Moyle says that the harp seal was unfamiliar to a lot of people (after all there aren’t many ice floes in Australia) but Professor Shibata chose the seal for exactly that reason. He thought if the animal was unfamiliar, people were less likely to have had negative experiences with PARO, and it would seem more ‘alive’ because they wouldn’t know what a real baby harp seal looked like up close.
Despite the room for improvement, Professor Moyle thinks they’re on to something. She says there are a number of different robots being used in nursing homes in Japan, and they’re seeing more variety in robots in Scandinavia and Germany. She thinks we will see more sophisticated robots, so long as the people in the lab remember to consult the people actually using the robots.
“I firmly believe that a robot like PARO has a place, but it’s about looking at results with individuals. What might work with one person might not work with other people.”
Perhaps by the time we millennials are in residential care, these companion robots will look like Furbies or Poo-Chi. Maybe they’ll look like R2-D2, or BB-8, depending on which Star Wars film you’re into. Maybe, just maybe, if we’re really lucky they’ll look like Rami Malek.