Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Therapeutic robots...cute or creepy?

In attempting to take a closer look at extended cognition, I went off on a tangent when I found a report on a documentary about a robot which is being used to aid treatment with dementia patients in several countries. Paro is a personal robot developed in Japan by Takanori Shibata in the early 1990’s. A baby harp seal with soft white anti-bacterial fur, huge dark eyes and long eyelashes he is designed to interact with and respond to five areas of sensory stimulation. Unlike a real baby seal, Paro is diurnal so that he is ‘awake’ at the same time as the humans who interact with him. He responds to touch, light, sound, temperature and posture and his battery recharger is designed to look like a baby’s pacifier. He can turn his head in the direction of a voice, move his flippers, bat his eyelashes, squeeze his big eyes shut when he is stroked gently and his body temperature is always warm. All in all he is, as they say in Japan “Kawaii!”...irresistibly cute!
Designed for therapeutic use with dementia patients, a harp seal was chosen because it is not as familiar an animal as a dog or a cat and yet is very appealing. Robotic dogs and cats soon fall short of our expectations, as do humanoid robots, but we don’t know much about baby harp seals other than their ‘cuteness’ so we are more willing to accept the interactive capabilities given to them by the designer. Usually used in elder-care setting such as nursing homes, little Paro responds to being cuddled and stroked by patients and remembers what he did to elicit a positive response from the patient so he can repeat the action. His role is to improve the socialization and psychological well-being of patients, trigger emotional attachment and aid relaxation. 

Recently in Dublin’s Science Gallery there was a showing of a film made by German documentary filmmaker Annette Wagner about Paro. Called “Squeeze Me” it examines the question of whether therapeutic robots can or should be used in geriatric care. You can see a preview of her film here. Paro has had mixed success in care settings, with some countries such as Denmark embracing the little guy more readily than others, but controversy has hovered over the use of such devices and their real value. Several advocacy groups for older people say that giving dementia patients a robot to play with while the humans run about cleaning and cooking defeats the purpose of ‘caring’ for older people who can no longer do so for themselves. Others think giving our elderly parents and grandparents a robot instead of our time is a lazy way out of our commitment to them in their later years. 

So what is it that makes some of us feel so uncomfortable about the idea of dementia or other patients developing an emotional relationship with a robot? Why does the idea that we can ‘trick’ our ageing relatives into interacting with a non-human object make some of us feel uneasy? Is it because we might feel we are abandoning them to ‘machines’ when it is we who should be talking to them, hugging them and holding their hands? As humans we place so much of who we are in what we remember and how we interact with others, that when dementia takes that away, we are sometimes at a loss to define the person left behind. Who are they anymore if they can’t remember their own children, or what they worked at all their lives? What part of them does a robot like Paro reach and what kind of cognitive process is going on when they hold and talk to him? Could Paro be a form of extended cognition for dementia patients by stimulating something in their brain process which everyday interaction with their environment cannot do? Could we ourselves be part of our relative's extended cognition if we evoke in them a memory or a thought as we hold their hand or chat to them? As with most of my investigations into these matters, I have ended up once again with no answers, only more questions!


  1. I can understand the concern of advocacy groups that relatives spending a few quid on a toy robot can count as a substitute for time and effort spent genuinely caring for them. But if it's taken on its own merits I don't personally see anything against something like Paro. To me it's essentially like a pet that doesn't have to washed or fed etc. I don't think there's any need to feel that we're tricking them here, if a pet brings them comfort then that's a positive thing and equally so with a toy/robot.

  2. So... I want one. While I appreciate all the negative arguments made against Paro, I think there is nothing wrong with its use if it fulfills a simple function: makes people happy. The advantage of a robot, though, is that it provides the interaction of a living thing without requiring care-taking responsibilities. While it can be argued that this is a cop-out on behalf of lazy relatives and caretakers, if it improves patient quality of life, who cares? Yes relatives should visit, and caretakers should "take care," and a robot is no substitute for these things. But if all things are equal with and without a robotic baby seal companion, I'd take the baby seal every time.

  3. There is clearly a danger here of robots being used by people as a type of "psychological crutch". The ease and comfort gained from talking to and cuddling a machine removes any challenge on the part of the person who needs to adapt to another beings moods and social requirements. Still for people so far gone with dementia, this toy could extend a hand back into reality by allowing them to care and feel again. Im reminded of Tom hanks in Cast Away who stayed sane by chatting with "Wilson" the volleyball. Who can say how sane, but It certainly helped. If TV is company for old people then a cuddly toy is surely a better version of that function.

  4. At the other end of the age spectrum robot toys for kids are big business. Case in point: Furby..

    "Furby, the adorable new plush friend that appears to develop a personality based on the way you play with it. Feed it, speak to it, tickle it or play music to it - each Furby is shaped by how you treat it. Play nicely and it may develop a sweet personality, or pull it and shake it and it may become mischievous. Furby speaks furbish at first but the more you interact with it, the more English it will start speaking. For additional interactive fun, visit the App store to download the free Furby app, compatible with iPad, iPod touch and iPhone - iOS 4.2 or later required. Requires 4x AA batteries not included". (see!126615-prd.aspx?qwSessionID=30aed22c-588e-4f98-acf3-3abe49cf4b0b )

  5. The cultural context is worthy of consideration here. I lived in Japan for a few years as a high school teacher, and the issue of therapeutic robots actually came up once in discussion with some of my students. It seemed much more natural to them to assume that because the thing looked and acted like an animal, it essentially was one. I, on the other hand, emphasised that real animals presumably have experience of the world, but the students deemed this largely irrelevant. Many of the students felt that the thing fulfilled the role of pet, and thus was a pet in every important sense. To generalise massively, westerners seem far more preoccupied with notions of authenticity than Japanese people, who seem more concerned with the ability of a thing/person to fulfill a role. Thus, westerners in Japan tend to frown uncomprehendingly on such things as ersatz Dutch village theme parks, reconstructed Samurai castles with elevators installed for the elderly, Takarazuka gender-bending theatre and many other examples. Perhaps the most extreme one I can think of is the 'pillow girlfriend'. See link below:

  6. This looks too cute, if so treat it is simply too cruel. Culture, customs, and so would do such a thing. These are what we must recognize and face. If you do not want to see these, it might as well buy a toy like this:, that there would be so scary thing.