Just like a real one, this baby seal looks cuddly and cute but has no appetite for fish. It’s a stuffed, plush robot that can replace cats and dogs as pets in hospitals and nursing homes, and in Japan it’s even used as a substitute pet.
Called Paro, it bats its eyes when its face is stroked and was on display at the annual Consumer Electronics Show.
Guiness World Records called Paro the world’s most therapeutic robot in 2002. Paro is fed with a pacifier attached to an electrical cord and wiggles in seeming delight when petted or cuddled.
“His whole body is covered by tactile senses so Paro feels your touch and your stroking,” said its inventor, Takanori Shibata of Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.
The robotic baby seal is used in animal therapy and social rehabilitation for those who can’t take care of real animals and in institutions where they aren’t allowed, Shibata said. Similar to real animal assisted therapy, contact with Paro by patients helps improve their vital signs, decreases stress and helps activate communication between patients and caregivers. Paro has been a particularly effective friend for the elderly, who are often some of the loneliest members of modern society.
Shibata said it’s modeled after baby harp seals that he saw in Canada and recorded their cries to be used in the seal robot.
So why a seal?
Cats and dogs weren’t considered as therapeutic robots because Shibata said people get tired of these domestic animals and “become critical” of them. They find more novelty in seals, animals they don’t regularly see, he said.
The robotic seal also has artificial intelligence and can remember how it was treated, encouraging its owner to caress it again, but it has a “kind of a sad cry, a negative reaction” if it’s hit or mistreated, said Shibata.
“Paro changes his character depending on the interaction with the owner,” he said as he stroked the robotic seal whose cry was a cross between a bark and whimper.
Its artificial intelligence also allows it to gradually recognize its name.
IFAW on the seal hunt in Canada.
More on the seal hunt at CBC