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Paro the Robotic Seal Could Diminish Dementia

First long-term study seeks to prove the benefits of a cybernetic pet

3 min read

Paro is a robotic baby seal. It may look like a toy, but it’s quickly attracting the serious attention of rehabilitation researchers. In Japan, more than 1000 units have been sold to care providers in nursing homes and hospitals, as well as to consumers who want a robotic companion. Short-term experiments in Japan and the United States show that Paro can have positive effects on the mental health of some elderly people. Now long-term studies are under way in Europe. The results could lead to specialized versions of Paro to help specific groups of people, such as elderly individuals suffering from dementia or children with autism.

It’s easy to see Paro’s attraction. It squeals, blinks, moves its head and paddles, and squeals some more. Oh, and it loves to be petted. But Paro—invented by Takanori Shibata, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST)—is also smart. Artificial intelligence software changes the robot’s behavior based on a host of sensors that monitor sound, light, temperature, and touch. Paro learns to respond to words its owner users frequently. And if it’s not getting much petting time, it will cry.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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