Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Robots Provide Comfort In Fukushima

With news that robot sales have risen 41 per cent in North America for the first half of 2011 comes news that Japan is using robots to help comfort people.

With many elderly (and young) people greatly affected by the triple disasters of earthquake, tsunami and near-nuclear meltdown beginning on March 11, 2011, folks have been seeking comfort wherever they can find it. 

For some elderly survivors, this comfort comes from a pair of robotic seals called Paro.

Situated 27 kilometres south of the Dai Ichi (Big One) nuclear facility in Fukushima-ken (Fukushima Prefecture) upon a hill hit by the tsunami, the Suisyoen retirement home is doing what it can to lend support.

Thanks to fears of nuclear radiation in the air spewed by the damaged nuclear facility, Suisyoen was evacuated for two months.

About a week after the people returned, Daiwa House's robotic division offered a pair of the Paro robots for a two-year period.

Each seal-shaped robot is coated with an anti-bacterial fur, and have been dubbed Love and Peace (obviously translated from Japanese!). The robot harp seals can blink their eyes and respond to touch and sound. And... the cute little bugger apparently develops a personality over time depending on how people interact with it... I mean him or her.

The robots are treated by the patrons as pets. Research has shown that pets offer amazing affects for those suffering from shock or depression.

While it is true that many retirement facilities in Japan and around the world utilize real animals to provide therapy for its residents, Suisyoen's facility general manager Katoono Taku (surname first) notes that using these therapeutic robots helps lower many of the barriers normally associated with live animals.

Japan - It's A Wonderful Rife assumes that to mean, no allergies, fears, cleaning, feeding, and of course, no pooping.      

AIST is the company that originally created Paro - but tried to do so using thej more familiar pets: dogs and cats. However, it was quickly determined that that while cute, people quickly began comparing the robotic cats and dogs with the real animals. 
By using a baby seal pup, it' is still cute and adorable and is familiar enough... but it is also unfamiliar enough to people who don't know what a real seal is supposed to behave like... so people just enjoy the robot for what it is... cute and fluffy. 
While real seals are nocturnal, the Paro seals wake in the morning and get sleepy in the evening. The Paro robots possess five senses which it uses to determine touch, light, sound, temperature and posture.
So... how does the robot act? Apparently Paro wakes up dazed (just like a real person... I'm unsure if a baby harp seal wakes up dazed, however), it enjoys cuddling, but will complain if it's not getting enough attention or food. 
The part of me that expects this to go horribly wrong assumes that eventually the baby harp seal wants to eat the raw flesh of Canadian harp seal clubbers, but no... Paro just needs a jolt of battery power. 
The seal - like any pet, will eventually learn whatever name you give it, as well as simple audio cues like greetings and praise. And, if that is to cool to creep you out, perhaps this will: Paro doesn't like you touching him/her in a certain way, and will wriggle away from you. It will nuzzle your hand, snuggle up when it is content and happy, and will bark like a seal if he's unhappy. 
It blinks his large eyes for attention, and meeps or mews when being ignored. Basically... this is a cool robot!

Should you wish to purchase a Paro Robot Seal Healing Pet...  I saw a price tag of US/Cdn $5,000.

For the folks at the Suisyoen, no price is to high.

Files by Andrew Joseph

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