Robots to assist the differently abled are not a brand-new idea. But I've never seen a robot as cute and cuddly and downright huggable as Paro, a theraputic robot in the form of a furry, huge-eyed baby seal. And from the moment I encountered it in a corner of the South Hall at CES 2014 in Las Vegas, I was in love.
Paro is from Japan, and was created as a robotic version of a therapy animal--one that doesn't need any care besides charging up its battery every six to eight hours or so. The reason it's a baby seal instead of, say, a cat or dog, is that people tend to prefer a cat over a dog or vice versa, but who can resist a baby seal? (Not me, that's for sure.) Plus, everyone has an idea of how a cat or dog should behave, which a robot could have a tricky time living up to.
Covered with 200 high-tech sensors under its thick, plush, kissable fur, Paro responds to your petting and caressing it. It turns its head toward you when you talk to it. Artificial intelligence lets it remember how you like it to behave (for instance, what it does that you respond to the most). It makes cooing sounds and wriggles when you hug it.
You can even change Paro's name--it'll learn the new one after enough repetition.
All of this is designed for patients in hospitals and care facilities to feel less stressed, and connect more easily with their human caregivers. Paro's human pals at CES told us it's particularly effective with elderly patients suffering from Alzheimer's or dementia, as well as children who are on the autism spectrum or have Down syndrome.
Seal of approval
Real talk: I've been in Vegas since Saturday night, so as of this writing I haven't been able to hug my 2-year-old son in approximately 4 days, 21 hours, 51 minutes, and 39 seconds. So I really needed a hug, and that is probably why I latched on to Paro so quickly and humanized him so thoroughly. ("It could be a girl," my video producer mentioned, due to the seal's lush eyelashes, which blink and flutter when he/she responds to your touch. "Could be," I agreed, "if I didn't have a boy at home.")
From the second I picked him up and he nuzzled into my embrace, I literally could not stop petting Paro, and I was genuinely bummed when it was time to give him back. Has Vegas turned me into an overtired, homesick, emotional wreck, or is there something to this robot therapy thing? Oh, both. Definitely both.
Since this is a legitimate medical device rather than a toy, Paro isn't cheap. It's available for lease for $200 per month, with payments going toward the purchase price, or can be bought outright for $6000. You can find more information, including research papers explaining the science behind this adorable seal, at parorobots.com.