Paro, a present for some Dutch elderly people (source)
In the local Dutch news I read that another Paro, a robot baby seal, had reached our shores. More specifically, a Paro seal entered the homes and hearts of the good people of verpleeghuis Van Wijckerslooth in Oegstgeest.
It is altogether fitting that Paro has come to Oegstgeest. Oegstgeest is a small and very old town near the coast that rose to fame as the setting of the novel ‘Return to Oegstgeest’ by Jan Wolkers. In the novel Wolkers writes a lot about his love for animals, both the cuddly ones and the less cuddly ones. It makes me wonder what Wolkers, may he rest in peace, would have had to say about Paro…
“Tsja, het is natuurlijk van de gekke dat je 4000 euro gaat betalen voor zo’n in elkaar geflanst stuk mechaniek terwijl je maar de tuin in hoeft te lopen voor de meest leuke beestjes. Maar ik snap het wel hoor. De mensen willen gewoon vertroeteld worden en vertroetelen zonder vies te worden. Ze zouden maar wat graag een robot hebben die de hele dag zijn hygiënisch schone vingertje zachtjes rondpoert in hun kont of hun kut zonder dat ze ervoor op hoeven te staan.”
There is a good deal of thinking behind Paro. For example, the creators at AIST chose the form of a baby harp seal, and not of a cat or dog, because people will not compare Paro to their experience with a real seal (since they probably will not have had a real experience with a live baby seal). Robot cats tend to be perceived as less fun and less cuddly than real cats. I know from personal experience that many people, especially kids, are quite fond of baby seals. We once went to Pieterburen, home of the world’s foremost Seal Rehabilitation and Research Centre. Even though the kids were not allowed to touch any real baby seals they came to love them just by looking at those big eyes and that innocent appearance. And now, with Paro, you can actually touch and even cuddle them without smelling fishy for a week. I guess all signs are ‘go’ for entering a loving ‘mental commitment’, which is at least what Paro is intended for own homepage…
“Mental Commitment Robots” are developed to interact with human beings and to make them feel emotional attachment to the robots. Rather than using objective measures, these robots trigger more subjective evaluations, evoking psychological impressions such as “cuteness” and comfort. Mental Commitment Robots are designed to provide 3 types of effects: psychological, such as relaxation and motivation, physiological, such as improvement in vital signs, and social effects such as instigating communication among inpatients and caregivers.
Rather grand claims for a robot that hardly does anything, but so far there have been reports in the news (e.g. here, here, or here) that it does have such positive effects to some extent. Yet, Paro only has a few basic sensors (light, touch, microphone, oriëntation/posture, and temperature). He can only open or close his eyes, move his head and paws a bit and ‘purr’ or ‘cry’. The solution, as always, comes from allowing the power of suggestion to work its magic. Minimalistic functionality leaves room to project feelings, moods, even personality to a robot.