Creature Comforts in Space

 

PARO is a robotic baby seal that helps dementia patients and may someday provide companionship to astronauts. The therapeutic tool’s creator Takanori Shibata thinks PARO may be able to reduce stress for astronauts – who regularly face nerve-wracking situations on the job – thereby lessening chances of human error. There is a growing interest in robotic companionship for astronauts (see here and here). PARO’s track record on Earth makes it a contender.

PARO has been in development since 1993 and is now in its ninth generation. About 5,000 PARO seals are being used in 30 countries. PARO’s artificial intelligence lets it learn: if its owner gives it a new name, for instance, PARO will learn to respond to it. Trials have shown PARO improves patients’ moods, increases their social communication, and reduces their stress.

Of course pets, particularly dogs, can also provide similar benefits. But PARO overcomes some of the drawbacks of living animals: it does not cause allergic reactions, transmit disease, eat, drink, or bite. And these would be useful qualities on a long-term space mission.

Filling Space spoke with Takanori Shibata to learn about PARO’s prospects in space. He is a Chief Senior Research Scientist at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and a visiting fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

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What is the history of PARO’s development? 

It is a long story. In 1993, I started to work for AIST. At the time, I wanted to develop a personal robot. I wondered what kinds of robots people would welcome in their lives. Most people might expect a personal robot to work on tasks such as cleaning and cooking, like a human servant. However, such a robot would be very complex and expensive, and might be not very efficient. Therefore, I thought I should develop a robot not focused on performing such tasks.

I considered what we have in our lives and thought of pets. We don’t expect pets to work for us, but we love them. I reflected on the roles animals play for humans. Animals can enrich our lives psychologically. So, I started to research “human-animal bonds” and animal therapy.

I conducted many preliminary studies with robot animal prototypes. In 1998, I developed the first seal robot in my “Artificial Emotional Creatures Project” at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. I was a visiting researcher there from 1995 to 1998. After returning to Japan, I improved PARO by making it more practical and more accepted by people. In addition, I conducted clinical trials at my laboratory and at hospitals and elderly facilities. Gradually, I started to collaborate with researchers, physicians, practitioners, and professional and non-professional caregivers around the world.

Why do you think PARO would be an appropriate companion for astronauts? 

PARO would be an “easy pet” for astronauts in spaceships and on bases off-planet, whether those bases be on the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere. Of course, PARO would need to be accepted by the astronauts in order to be therapeutic to them.

How much interest have you found among individuals in the space industry for your proposal?

I distributed questionnaires on “PARO for Astronauts” at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs and the SpaceCom in Houston. Most people responded that astronauts’ mental health is very important in long-term missions such as those that would go to Mars. They thought PARO would be helpful to astronauts.