In Japan, happiness is a warm robot
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.

"The 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.

Akimitsu Yokoyama, 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.

Shibata 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 people today.

Animal robots are also being used by nursing homes and nurse aids.

In Sincere 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 room.

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 University.

Still, the overwhelming popularity of robots in Japanese society indicates that robot pets are becoming a part of everyday life.

"Japan 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.

(Inter Press Service)

Oct 26, 2002


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