There's an ongoing debate over the utility of companion robots. With some exceptions, usually Japanese researchers, and the Japanese public, take the positive side of the debate and insist that the elderly benefit considerably from the emotional and relationship support provided by the robots.
The US experts tend to take the negative debate side, insisting that the robot is purely and simply a mechanical, soulless device.Adding a little more fuel to the debate fire, the Guinness World Record organization has officially recognized the Paro baby harp seal robot as the "World's Most Therapeutic Robot".
Paro was developed by the Japan National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology at the huge super-campus facility in Tsukuba, about 35 minutes north east of Tokyo. In the three short years since it was unveiled, the robot has been pressed into use in over 20 countries around the world, and became the subject of a documentary titled "Mechanical Love" produced by Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo.
As the film documents, Paro has been quite effective at establishing a bonding relationship with its human counterparts. The same size as a real baby harp seal, measuring 57 cm (14.5 inches) and weighing 2.7 kg (5.9 pounds), the robot has very realistic movements, behaviors, and fur. It responds to stroking and voice just like a real pet. Studies have confirmed that elderly using the robot for extended period of time experience reduced stress, less depression, and measurable improvements in their health.
A skeptic might point out that a cat or dog would satisfy the same human need, and they would be right. So, why don't Japanese elderly just buy themselves a pet for companionship?
We asked several of our friends here in Chiba with elderly parents. Their response was simple and consistent. The elderly don't want to take on responsibility for a cat or dog because it would live longer than them. They worry about who would take care of it after they are gone, and they don't want to pass on the burden to others.
We might scoff at that. After all, a dog is just a 'dog'. Why should we worry what might happen to it after we pass on? But the Japanese are totally serious. In their minds, and their culture, it's a very valid concern. Perhaps they see their pets in a different light than Americans, in the same way that the two cultures view robots from two totally different perspectives.