Robot Friends

Companion robots have been with us for a few years now, although the focus has been mainly in Japan. Ifbot was a white plastic guy who could make himself useful and do things like taking photographs. He didn’t seem to be much in demand after the first few weeks in an old folks home. Perhaps R2D2-like bots are better as care-bots than in the companion role.

Animal robots seem to do better. AIBO, the dog-bot and NeCoRo, the cat-bot both seem to be hits with kids. However, the ultimate (at present) companion-bot is PARO, a baby Harp seal robot. It made top spot as the most therapeutic robot in the Guinness World Records collection.

It may be the helpless look with the big “baby” eyes, or its cries, but it always needs a hug and a stroke. It does well as a companion-bot and has worked well in some old folks homes, and now has at least 35 users in North America. Most of these users are institutions.

The numbers of people who have interacted with Paro is quite large as over 1,000 have been sold with about two thirds of these for private use, so he/she is now an establishment figure.

A survey has been conducted by Shibata et al to see how people are getting on with their companion Harp seal robot flopping around in their living space and crying for attention (1). 85 people agreed to give their responses. 61 of these were women and 22 were men and most of the owners were between 30 and 90-years old (95%).

The owners all liked to stroke and hug their robot as well as speak to him/her. The owners liked to say hello when they came home and praise Paro for responding, as well as saying “good night” or “good morning.” Many people who had kept pets previously wanted a brush and a collar to keep their Paro spruced up and well decked out.

That Paro is a cute baby animal that they can’t buy in a pet shop is probably a major part of his/her attraction compared to dog or cat-bots. Also many of the owners could not currently own a pet because of apartment living or some such constraint.

It appears that companion-bots that respond when you hug and stroke them, who look and feel cuddly, and who respond when you speak to them, are welcomed by all ages. What we need now is an fMRI study coupled with measurements of the levels of hormones such as dopamine to compare the therapeutic effectiveness of a companion animal with a companion-bot.

  1. T. Shibata, Y. Kawaguchi and K. Wada, Int. J. Soc. Robotics,                                              DOI 10.1007/s12369-011-0111-1 

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