I am not what is called an "early adopter." I have not summoned an Uber car, though I've ridden in one conjured up by colleagues, and I've downloaded the Uber app on my iPhone, inching toward the big moment when I shift from licensed cabbies to piecework drivers.
And I didn't pet a Paro until Friday, a dozen years after the robotic baby harp seal was created and started showing up at nursing homes and hospitals, and long after it became something of a cultural touchstone, parodied on "The Simpsons" and well-covered in the media.
Still, it was news to me—I had stopped by the Japanese External Trade Organization's Chicago office, to pick up some background information for a trip to Japan in March for Mosaic, the London web site of medicine and science. Since I'm writing about kawaii, or cuteness, my contact at JETRO, Robert Corder, thought I might enjoy meeting Paro.
And I did, if "enjoy" is the word you can use to describe the slightly vertiginous feeling you get when you glimpse the unfamiliar future hurtling toward us.
"They actually recorded baby harp seals, in Canada, to get the sounds just right," said Corder. "The shape itself, you have to hold it."
I admit that it is something easier to pick up than put down, and we ended up passing it to each other as we talked. The robots are made in Japan, but the company selling them, PARO Robotics, is based right here in Itasca.
Paro was designed by Takanori Shibata, a Japanese engineer who wanted to develop a robot that would be useful to people. At first he considered making a robotic cat or dog, but people tend to prefer one or the other, and had pre-set expectations about how cats and dogs should look and behave. On the other hand, not many people have held a baby harp seal. Paro was approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a Class 2 medical device in 2009, and is found in hospitals and treatment centers around the world. The seals are useful motivators when dealing with autistic children, for instance.
"They use it for kids who have ADHD, Asperger's and autism," Corder said. "Those kids can have a hard time connecting, so they teach them to talk to Paro. They have no problem talking to a robot. The teachers will use him as a teaching tool. They use him for breaks. 'Let's take a break and you can have some Paro time.'"
In retirement homes, Corder said, Paro not only comforts lonely seniors, but lures them into social interaction.
"The people come out of their apartments, come out of their rooms, down to the common area," he said. " They don't bring it to your room. So if you want to have time with him, you have to come out of your apartment. It's a whole strategic use."
I felt like a farmer gawping at a Model T, and what made me believe this sort of thing is going to grow bigger and bigger, and not just be a passing fad, is that I kept looking at Paro, which was batting his eyes and cooing and almost demanding attention, instead of looking at Corder, who is just another human being.
That no doubt troubles some, and I admit I had qualms floating around myself. Should not every dementia patient and troubled child have human caregivers and live comfort animals? Sure, in an ideal world. And a pony for the children. But in our real world, with an exploding population of elderly with dementia, caregivers will be a scarce commodity, and if comfort is found in robots such as Paro—and it is, studies around the world show—where is the harm?
Paro made me think of our small dog, Kitty, and another initial, half-hearted mental reservation was, naturally, this robotic seal would not really love its owner the way a dog does. But that love is also a projection. I just think Kitty loves me, because I want her to and she seems to. Just like Paro does.