When I read MIT anthropologist Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other last year, the sections on robotic companions weren’t my main focus but I found them fascinating. She wrote about observing interactions between older Japanese people in a nursing home and a robotic harp seal called Paro. You could think of Paro as a more cuddly, less demanding, more affectionate Furby — it is sensitive to light and dark and has tactile, position, temperature and sound sensors. It reacts in a realistic animal way, responding to its name and frequently used words, seeking to be petted, and avoiding harder blows.
Slate has an article today about a new study by an international team of researchers that looked at the effect of interacting with Paro in Australian patients with mid-to-late stage dementia. Bottom line: it helps. Those subjects experienced more pleasure and had less anxiety and an improved quality of life compared to a control group that had reading as an activity. The subject groups were small, but the results were significant.
I’ll admit that I looked up how much a Paro costs when I first read about it. My 96 year old grandmother is independent and quite healthy and she lives alone. She couldn’t handle the demands of caring for an animal at this time, but I’ve seen her interact with my dog and I suspect that a robotic companion pet would help diminish feelings of loneliness and make her smile. Unfortunately, at $8k they’re fine therapeutic tools for institutions but about $7950 above my budget.