Therapeutic Robots Paro and Keepon Are Cute But Still Costly

These 'bots are soft, cuddly, and designed to be universally likable, but they don't come cheap.

1 min read

Spectrum editor and producer Josh Romero just posted this entertaining video, "The Invasion of Cute, Therapeutic Robots," on two robots that are, well, cute and therapeutic. They are Paro, a robotic seal used to treat elderly patients with dementia, and Keepon, a yellow, rubbery robot that researchers have used to interact with autistic children.

It's amazing to see how much technology goes into these little creatures.

I wrote a story about Paro early this year. The robot, invented by Takanori Shibata, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, uses two 32-bit RISC processors, custom actuators, and a host of sound, light, temperature, and touch sensors. It also has some AI capabilities -- it learns its name over time and changes its behavior to maximize its petting opportunities. Oh, and it's got a pacifier-shaped recharger.

Keepon, created by Marek Michalowski, a robotics Phd student at Carnegie Mellon, and Hideki Kozima, currently a professor at Miyagi University, in Japan, uses two video cameras (eyes) and a microphone (nose) as sensors, and four motors are embedded on its base. It can be tele-operated by a therapist in another room, but can also run in an autonomous mode, bouncing along to music or sounds. The idea is researchers can monitor, track, and record the children's improvement.

Still, there's room for improvement in at least one area: their price tags. Josh reports.


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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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