Past Event

Need Companionship? There’s a PARO for that…

The mechanization of day to day living was only inevitable. But with Paro, a Japanese made socially-interactive robot in the form of a Harp Seal pup, living does not solely mean the ability to function.  Rather, Paro’s designer, Takanori Shibata, created a robot intended to transcend the basics of mere existence. Paro takes on some human qualities and desires: for example, it complains if it wants attention or food (a battery charge), and learns to respond to its owner when called upon by its given name.

Paro, an endearing phonetic combination of personal robot, is being marketed ($6,000 per) to nursing homes in the US as a therapeutic medical device. “It serves as a low-maintenance alternative to the cats and dogs many nursing homes import for ‘pet therapy,’” notes the Wall Street Journal. Paro does not require walks or grooming, only needing to be fed via a pacifier shaped charger. This is why many see Paro as a suitable companion for elderly patients, especially those with Alzheimer’s or dementia, whom are not fit to care for a live animal. “It is plain that nursing-home residents take comfort in watching, touching, talking to, singing at, and cleaning Paro,” reads the New Atlantis. One anxious Pittsburgh nursing home resident was instantly calmed by Paro’s presence. “I love this baby,” she proclaimed as she stroked its faux fur (Wall Street Journal).

Psychology points to a more subtle advantage Paro might offer. Robots like Paro do not have their own agendas, beliefs, or morals, and as such can “give the appearance of aliveness and yet not disappoint,” MIT professor Sherry Turkle notes. The last thing many nursing home residents need is to feel disappointment.

Yet there are those who contend Paro will do more harm than good. One psychologist, Mattias Scheutz, worries about Paro’s amorality. Unidirectional emotional attachment relationships with robots are not only [in]appropriately reciprocated, but might allow robots to take advantage of people’s emotional propensities and reactions.”

Others worry that Paro will add to a general lack of human interaction for many nursing home residents. Dr. Bill Thomas, authority on geriatrics, thinks its backward logic to entrust the roll of care-giving to robots when humans are present: If you [instead] give me a robot that helps perform mundane tasks associated with caregiving, such as vacuuming or doing the dishes, I’m all for that.” But actual care, the emotional support, should be a uniquely human task, Thomas adds.  

What do you think of Paro’s immersion into nursing home facilities? Is it something to be embraced? Why or why not? In the US, nursing homes are often deprived of adequate staff: a critical poster of Paro reads “Create Children not Robots,” suggesting that the solution to poor healthcare is not technology but increased birthrates so that there are more future healthcare employees. Do you think there is any merit to such an argument? Why or why not? Why does our society seem so apt toward creating a new technology whenever there seems to be a problem? Do you think there is something inherently wrong with making robots objects of affection? Why or why not?  What are the positives of Paro and other robot companions?

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