Japan, happiness is a warm
By Suvendrini Kakuchi
TOKYO - One of Japan's top-dog technological
breakthroughs - the robot canine - and other robotic
pets are being hailed by doctors and caregivers for
bringing companionship and fun into the lives of the
country's old and infirm, as well as sick children.
Keiko Ogasawara spent more than US$2,000 in
January to buy her husband an Aibo, Sony's robot dog
that has taken Japan by storm since it was first
released in June 1999.
"I bought the robot to
keep my husband company. He often complains he is lonely
as I return late at night after work," says Ogasawara,
42, who is in charge of exports at a trading company.
Sony's Aibo is the world's first commercially
available robot dog. The initial release of 5,000 units
sold out in a blink in Japan and the United States.
Since then, the robot dogs, which bark, whine, and wag
their tails as they walk across the floor, have been
produced in many models.
The newest version, the
Aibo ERS-220 series released last November,
"understands" about 50 words and some emotions that
allow interaction with their owners.
popularity of pet robots in this country signals the
beginning of a new tie between humans and robots," says
Kunichi Ozawa, director of Sincere Korien, a new
107-room nursing home that is encouraging the use of the
robot animals as therapy for the elderly.
Indeed, the use of robot dogs in hospitals and
homes of the elderly are now being accepted by doctors
as a way of helping patients and senior citizens cope
with loneliness and illness.
a doctor at Yamato City Hospital near Tokyo, avidly
supports the use of the robots in his pediatrics ward.
"The children love them," he says. "They smile
and laugh when the dogs come over, helping them to
forget their painful treatments or loneliness of being
away from home."
Another huge success has been
Paro, a furry white seal that has been acknowledged by
the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's most
soothing robot. The size of a large cat, Paro can be
cuddled and petted. It wriggles when its name is called
and makes eye contact and cheerful squeaking noises when
petted. A combination of airbag-based pressure sensors
and artificial fur creates a soft pliable surface that
makes it huggable to many.
Takanori Shibata, 35,
Paro's inventor, says the seal's therapeutic effect can
be observed in hospitals and among elderly, after tests
carried by the Tsukuba University in Ibaraki prefecture.
"Our goal is to give joy and relief to people
through interaction" with the robot, he said.
During a two-month trial last year, researchers
found a marked drop in stress levels among seniors who
interacted with the electronic seal.
notes that unlike tending to live pets, the robot animal
does not need feeding or cleaning, making it much more
attractive for elderly owners or busy people here in
Japan. "For time-pressed Japanese, the robot pets are
the perfect companions."
The business aspect of
robot therapy is a major factor for its developers. By
2020, one in four citizens in Japan will be more than 65
years old, compared with 17 percent of its 127 million
Animal robots are also being used
by nursing homes and nurse aids.
Korien, the new home built by Matsushita Electric in
Osaka, a 10-month-long experiment was conducted were
human caregivers were assisted by robot teddy bears
built by the company.
"Equipped with sensors,
the bear-bots not only interacted with residents, they
also helped the staff monitor the residents through
technology," says Ozawa, director of the home.
Tama is a large orange bear that can speak
phrases such as "good morning" or "welcome home".
The bear was placed in elderly residents' rooms.
The censor built into the bear is linked to a large
screen in the nurse station, which helps the nurse
monitor the senior charge without having to go to the
But for all its novelty, some say robot
pets can never replace the love of people or live
animals. "It is important to remember the best care for
the elderly is through human contact," says Nobuka
Sawada, who teaches welfare policy at Saitama
Still, the overwhelming popularity
of robots in Japanese society indicates that robot pets
are becoming a part of everyday life.
developed a postwar society that worships economic and
technological development," says Yokoyama. "Therefore it
is absolutely natural to reply on technology to fill in
for the breakdown of traditional family roles, which
accompanies rapid economic growth in our society."
Mie Maruyama, a social counselor for the
elderly, says Japanese culture encourages people not to
show much emotions to one another. "So the role of the
robot becomes something special as people can easily
express their emotions to a robot instead," she says.