Japanese engineers have dispatched Paro the robot seal to comfort the victims of the March 3 earthquake and tsunamis in northern Japan.
Modeled on a baby harp seal, Paro is a therapeutic robot that responds to touch and voices. It's covered in tactile sensors and responds to petting by squealing. It's meant to soothe people who use it.
Developed by Takanori Shibata at Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Paro has been used in nursing homes in Japan and overseas since 2003; eight generations have been produced. Studies have shown that Paro can lower stress levels in users and caregivers. It can also help dementia patients.
This report from NHK TV shows people in Japan's tsunami-hit areas interacting with Paro recently. The bot visited evacuation shelters including a site in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, a small town that was nearly completely destroyed in the disaster.
The old woman in the image above can be heard saying she told Paro she's doing her best to keep her chin up.
Handmade in Japan, Paro costs around $6,000 and has approval as a Class 2 medical device in the U.S.; care facilities make up the bulk of users. A Wall Street Journal report last year described the mixed response to Paro.
According to the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, though, kids in Japan's disaster zone couldn't get enough of the robo-seal. After all, it gives artificial love and asks nothing in return.