One of the winners of Japan's annual Robot Awards is a small, furry replica of a baby harp seal that offers comfort to the elderly and children with disabilities. PARO, a therapeutic robot that blinks its eyes and flaps its flippers when petted, won one of ten top honors in the first year of the competition sponsored by the Japanese government, according to a report from the Associated Press. We couldn't agree more with the decision.
We wrote about PARO earlier this year in an article called "The Hits of Tokyo Robot Week", by roboticist Aleksandar Lazinica. PARO was created by the Intelligent Systems Research Institute of Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in collaboration with Microjennics Co. Each PARO, of the 800 built thus far, is an eighth-generation mimetic mental-committed robot, according to Lazinica. They feature five kinds of sensors—tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture—that enable them to respond to input from their environment. Feedback from their sensors allows them to develop "personalities" through a process of interactive behavioral learning with their owners.
In a nation with a rapidly aging population, robots such as PARO are seen by technologists as an hygienic form of animal therapy that may improve quality of life for seniors and children. Lazinica writes that PARO's functionality can be used in three therapeutic capacities: the psychological (for relaxation and stress relief), the physiological (for improvement of vital signs), and the sociological (for improvement of communication capabilities). Testing at nursing homes and children's hospitals in France, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and the United States demonstrated that having a PARO robot companion could replicate the same effects as interaction with a real pet.
The Robot Awards were set up earlier this year by the Japanese government to promote research and development in the robotics industry, according to the AP. Others winners of the 2006 Robot Awards included: a robot that uses a joystick-controlled swiveling arm to help feed persons with disabilities; and a mammoth, automated vacuum cleaner that uses elevators to travel between floors.
Lazinica observed back in January that the expressions of joy he saw in the faces of children playing with a PARO justifies high marks for its developers' 13 years of research on it. While PARO is far from a toy, in future years it could help brighten the holiday season for many young and old alike.