NEW YORK – When Takanori Shibata first began robotic research 14 years ago, he wasn’t interested in inventing a robot to help with jobs around the house. He wanted to design something that would improve the quality of people’s lives.
Shibata thought about animals and how they enriched the lives of the people who interact with them.
“I thought about what we have in our lives and I thought about pets. People don’t expect any work from pets, but they like animals and pets,” he said on the sidelines of Tech Epoch, a program sponsored by New York’s Japan Society to demonstrate cutting-edge Japanese technology.
The senior research scientist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology was part of the 11-day program that ended Tuesday, which featured robots and futuristic autos as well as seminars with technology experts.
As Shibata studied the interplay between animals and humans, he learned how pets have positive psychological and social effects on people, and began focusing on that aspect.
In addition to cheering people up, domesticated animals can reduce stress and encourage communication in humans, particularly people who suffer mental and physical problems.
He decided to design a therapeutic robot, one that would be unfamiliar, yet lovable. In 1998, he created Paro, modeled after a baby harp seal.
The 40-year-old Toyama native said he chose the seal because he imagined the robot to be “egg shaped” and one that could be cradled easily on a person’s lap while doing other things, like watching television.
“It should be comfortable and nice, so I thought of what animals we had (in the world) and came upon the baby seal,” Shibata said.
He said the seal, now in its eighth generation, has been well-received by people of all ages and cultures — from Alzheimer’s patients in Italy to children with autism and Down syndrome in Asia.
The cuddly robot is being used in more than 10 countries for therapeutic purposes. It is sold commercially only in Japan but Shibata wants Paro on the U.S. market by January.
The interactive robot responds to people’s actions. When someone speaks soothing words and pets Paro, it bats its long eyelashes or wiggles and makes cute baby seal noises. When struck, it responds as if hurt.
Like humans, the robotic seal is more active during the day and becomes sleepy at night. It is also sensitive to sound, light, touch and temperature and can recognize several words.
“It moves like a real seal,” said 9-year-old Ibrahim Jihah, who was mesmerized by the sounds and movements of the robot at a hands-on session.
The scientist said his invention is particularly valuable for pediatric wards, day-care centers and nursing homes.
Tests in Japan show reduced stress levels in senior citizens who spend time with Paro.
Shibata says he thinks Paro can help prevent dementia. An estimated 84 million people around the world are expected to have some form of dementia by 2040. Japanese tests show marked improvement in the brain activity of people with dementia after they have been exposed to the robot.
Between 900 and 1,000 Paros have been sold in Japan so far, 70 percent of them bought by individuals.
Paros are also an alternative for people who want pets but can’t keep them because of health reasons or restrictions where they are living.
The robot’s inventor said it was never his intention to replace pets, just to help people who can’t be around live animals.
Shibata said Paro has been a positive “social experiment” in Japan.
“At the beginning Paro was not for everybody,” he said. “I didn’t expect 100 percent of the people to accept him. So far, gradually, people have become accustomed to having robots or Paros in their lives.”
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