Robo-seals invade U.S. nursing homes — perhaps a gadget too far?

Stuffed seal
Image by matsuyuki via Flickr

What with human affection so hard to come by these days, wouldn’t Granny be happy with a fuzzy mechanical toy? That, presumably, was the reasoning behind Japanese inventor Takanori Shabata’s idea for the nursing home’s new best friend, Paro the robo-seal. $15 million dollars later, Paro had hummed and buzzed his (her?) way into the hearts and homes of some 1300 Japanese adults who don’t want the hassle of real, live pets. Now cleared as a Class 2 medical device — a category enjoyed by his brethren the motorized wheelchair and similar less-cuddly items — Paro’s newest destination is U.S. nursing homes.

“Some of our residents need more than we as human beings can provide,” says Marleen Dean, activities manager at Vincentian Home, one of four facilities run by Pittsburgh-based Vincentian Collaborative System. Vincentian Collaborative recently used a $55,000 grant to purchase eight Paros and finds them especially comforting to patients with dementia. “We’ve tried soft teddy bears that talk and move. But they don’t have the same effect.”

Bill Thomas thinks it’s inhumane to entrust the task of emotional support to a gadget.

“If you give me a robot that helps perform mundane tasks associated with caregiving, such as vacuuming or doing the dishes, I’m all for that,” says Dr. Thomas, founder of the Green House Project, a campaign to make nursing homes smaller and more like regular houses. But “if we wind up with nursing homes full of baby-seal robots, the robots will be trying to fulfill the relationship piece of caregiving, while the humans are running around changing the beds and cooking the food.”

This space sides with Bill Thomas. At $6,000 per robo-seal, it just seems that some less anti-bacterial real creature could be found to serve the same purpose. But Paro has made believers in several U.S. nursing homes such as one in which a dementia unit resident is quoted as whispering to it, “I know you’re not real, but somehow, I don’t know, I love you.”   The question of whether offering Paro for love and affection (and often just for calming down the agitated folks who tend to populate nursing homes) is ethical and proper is stirring debate both here and in Denmark, where more than 100 Paros have found homes.

Sherry Turkle, a professor in the Science, Technology and Society program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, acknowledges Paro’s potential as a communication aid, but warns against regarding it as a companion. “Why are we so willing to provide our parents, then ourselves, with faux relationships?” she asks.

Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo, who spotlighted Paro in her 2007 documentary on interactive robots, “Mechanical Love,” dismisses such concerns. “When I came into nursing homes and found people sitting in rocking chairs with dolls, no one lifted an eyebrow.”

DTI (European distributor Danish Technological Institute) requires caregivers to attend Paro seminars, where they discuss such issues as whether it’s OK to leave an elderly person alone with a Paro, and whether patients must be told it’s a robot. Don’t allow someone to “escape into a strange seal robot’s universe,” cautions Lone Gaedt, senior consultant at DTI.

Admittedly, we carry on with perfect strangers in the parallel worlds of cyberspacial social networks. But somewhere, somehow, a few lines of human interaction might be better off left un-blurred.

What do you think?

Paro the Robo-Seal Aims to Comfort Elderly, but Is It Ethical? –