Sunday, January 10, 2016

"They have no problem talking to a robot." Meet Paro

     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.
     Paro is not a toy. It is a $6,000 robotic baby harp seal that has audio, light, touch and temperature sensors, microprocessors. It bobs its head, looks at you like an inquisitive pup, practically begging to be stroked. It can bat its long eyelashes, and coo and trill in an appealing, lifelike way. 
       "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.  


  1. Paro was featured on an episode of Aziz Ansari's recent Netflix show, Master of None. Can't say it had hit my radar prior to that. I can see a certain appeal, but not at the current price!

  2. What a fantastic use of technology! The baby seal is perfect, no uncanny valley look which would probably be the problem w a cat or dog. I'm looking forward to your Mosaic piece, it sounds rather interesting.

  3. Go do some research for cancer instead, I'd tell those tech companies.

  4. buzzfeed may not be reliable but it's enough for the gov't to look into it. This guy will be sorry he ran- and hope the born agains enjoy this.

    Donald Trump offered a creative, multipronged defense of himself after BuzzFeed published a salacious, unverified 35-page memo claiming that the Kremlin had compromising secrets about the president-elect’s sex life.

    “Does anyone really believe that story? I’m also very much a germophobe, by the way, believe me,” he said Wednesday during his first press conference since winning the November election.

    CNN reported Tuesday night that the heads of all four U.S. intelligence agencies presented both Trump and President Obama a two-page synopsis that included allegations that Russian intelligence operatives collected compromising personal and financial information about him. BuzzFeed subsequently published what it said was the unverified 35-page dossier, reportedly compiled by a former British intelligence operative, on which the synopsis was in part based.

    BuzzFeed noted that the dossier contained clear errors, and the outlet’s decision to publish it sparked debates about whether it was ethical to do so. Among other things, the dossier claimed that Russian intelligence operatives filmed Trump with prostitutes in hotel rooms.

    During his press conference, Trump blasted the report as “fake news” compiled by his political opponents and further said he had always warned his staffers about potential hidden cameras in hotel rooms.


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