Cuddly robot seals as a therapy assistant

«PARO» is a robotic seal that is used around the world to help treat people with dementia. It was invented by Takanori Shibata from Japan. Sabina Misoch, Head of the Interdisciplinary Competence Centre for Ageing at the FHS St.Gallen, met up with him on her research trip to Japan.

Marion Loher

Takanori Shibata is worshipped in Japan. The 49-year-old engineer developed PARO over a decade ago. The therapy robot, which looks like a young harp seal, is now used worldwide in geriatric care: as a therapy assistant, a playmate and a comforter. Sabina Misoch has witnessed this idolisation of the Japanese scientist in person.

«After we met up in Tokyo, we visited an exhibition where a wide variety of new technologies were on show. PARO was also on display», said the gerontologist and project manager of the national innovation network «Age(ing) in Society» in an interview via Skype. «When the exhibition staff saw Takanori Shibata, they went crazy and didn’t let him out of their sight. We then walked through the exhibition followed by a harem of women», she laughs.

Testing PARO for Living Labs

Sabina Misoch has been in contact with the inventor of the therapy robot for a while now. But until last week, only by email. They wanted to use their first face-to-face meeting in Japan to set up a joint research project. «I told him that we wanted to use PARO for our Living Labs», says the gerontologist. The cuddly robotic seal would be used to help people who are suffering from early-stage dementia but are still able to live at home.

According to Sabina Misoch, Takanori Shibata is very interested in the project, as the therapeutic robot is mainly used as an in-patient method and for people with middle- and late-stage dementia. In Japan, however, PARO has already been tested on people suffering from early dementia. Despite the small sample size, the study still showed that the disease had not become more acute during the research period. «It would be great, of course, if the therapeutic robot could slow down the progression of dementia», says the gerontologist. But to find out whether it does, much more data would be needed. This is where Sabina Misoch wants to make her own scientific contribution with her Living Labs.

Highly controversial in Europe

In Europe, the therapeutic robot PARO is no stranger to controversy. The issues that stand in the way of using the robotic seals are primarily of an ethical nature. Opponents argue that this form of therapy deceives the patients, as they can no longer tell whether the seals are real or artificial. For Sabina Misoch, however, this is not the decisive question – she believes the well-being of the patients should come first. «If the patients enjoy using PARO and it also reduces the workload of the nursing staff, then this should be seen as something positive», she says.

The scientist did not encounter any critical debate in Japan. In fact, quite the opposite: «The government is supporting and promoting the new technologies being developed for old age.» Takanori Shibata wants to make a detour to Switzerland when he next visits Europe – probably in December or January – in order to give a lecture on the topic at the FHS St.Gallen. «I’m looking forward to hearing his answers to these critical questions.»

Less stress, better sleep

Sabina Misoch believes PARO offers another advantage: people don’t have any expectations of seals, like they might have of cats or dogs. No one knows what it feels like to hold a seal, she says. The interactive responses of the therapy robot could therefore be self-determined. It responds, blinks, makes noises and wiggles its tail fin. The soft fur, long eyelashes and big saucer eyes also add to the cuteness effect.

«Research has shown that people with dementia experience fewer stress symptoms and need less medication thanks to the cuddly robotic seal. They’re more active and sleep better.» It also relieves the burden on the nursing staff. This should not be underestimated, as working with people suffering from dementia is very demanding, as the gerontologist knows from own experience.

Picture: Sabina Misoch