A Selfie with a Robotic Seal

Japan’s Takanori Shibata developed the PARO therapeutic robot almost 20 years ago. Today, PARO is used in geriatric care in over 30 countries worldwide. At the invitation of Sabina Misoch, Head of the Interdisciplinary Competence Centre for Ageing at the FHS St.Gallen, the scientist visited St.Gallen last week for a lecture – and he had a hidden surprise in his luggage.

Marion Loher

With its soft coat, big black eyes and cute button nose, the young harp seal looks like a cuddly toy – and it feels like one, too. But it’s much more than just an animal you can stroke. PARO, as the seal is called, is actually a robot that is used around the world to treat people with dementia. The robotic seal was developed by Takanori Shibata from Japan.

The 50-year-old scientist came to the FHS St.Gallen last week to give a lecture. And he brought two of the robotic seals with him – a white one and a grey one. They turned out to be the stars of the evening. The audience was allowed to touch and stroke them, pick them up, and even take a selfie with them. They certainly got the seal of approval from the participants! According to Takanori Shibata, these two seals are the most popular colours. They also exist in gold and pink, but those versions are too showy for most people, he added.

The scientist had been invited by Sabina Misoch, who heads the Interdisciplinary Competence Centre for Ageing at the FHS St.Gallen. The two of them have been in contact for about a year now, after meeting last October in Tokyo during Sabina Misoch’s research trip to Japan. At the FHS St.Gallen, Takanori Shibata talked about PARO and its effects. Sabina Misoch, on the other hand, discussed the relationship between Swiss people and robots, as well as the potential that technological aids harbour for the elderly.

5000 robotic seals in over 30 countries

Takanori Shibata developed the robotic seal in Japan almost 20 years ago. It is now used in more than 30 countries worldwide, including Denmark, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, the USA, Australia and New Zealand. «Five thousand of these robotic seals currently exist, with three thousand of them in Japan», says the scientist. PARO was developed primarily for people with dementia, but it has also been tested on children suffering from autism and on adults with brain injuries. Most of these robots are therefore used in hospitals and homes. In Japan, however, they also serve as substitute pets for elderly people who aren’t allowed dogs or cats in their home.

The cuddly robotic seal weighs 2,5 kilogrammes. He can move his head, his flippers and his eyes. He can also makes noises: «He imitates the sound that a real baby seal»,makes says Takanori Shibata. Thanks to built-in sensors, PARO can also detect light and darkness, as well as being able to remember names or feel and record touches. The robotic seals cost 5500 euros.