|http://www.sina.com.cn 2005/06/14 18:27 国际在线|
"One time, I could not find Paro and was looking for [him] all over the place," says one caretaker at the Kirara nursing home in Japan's Nanto City. "Finally I found Paro sleeping in one of the patient's beds."
No, Paro isn't a pet dog or cat. Rather, Paro is a robotic baby seal--replete with white fur--that was developed over 12 years at a cost of some $10 million by Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. Nanto City, a centrally located Japanese city with an elderly population that comprises 26% of its total residents, is one of the first municipalities in the world to experiment with using robots to help care for the elderly.
Anecdotal reports are encouraging. According to the nursing staff, Paro, which responds to human voices and caresses, has become part of the family. In fact, nurses often find elderly patients covering the robot in blankets and trying to feed it cake or other snacks, despite the fact that Paro can't really eat.
Given Japan's fascination with gadgets, perhaps it's no surprise that the country is turning to technology for help with one of its most vexing problems: an aging population. Japan is one of the oldest countries in the world, with a full 28% of the population expected to be 65 years or older by 2010, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Fewer young people translate into a shortage of caretakers. The hope is that robotic companions can ease some of the burden.
But whether robots can adequately handle this responsibility--positively impacting both the health and well-being of the elderly--remains an open question.
Though studies are limited in number and scope, most have likened the potential role of robots among seniors to that of live pets. One such study, funded by the National Science Foundation, was conducted in senior residential facilities near Indiana's Purdue University. Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue's School of Veterinary Medicine and a principal investigator in the study, says they placed Aibo, a robotic dog made by Sony, in the homes of isolated senior citizens to determine whether the robotic pet can improve quality of life.
Though the final results have not yet been published, preliminary conclusions indicate that the robotic dog is treated much like a family pet, eliciting behaviors commonly associated with companionship, including sharing thoughts and feelings. Beck says participants felt more comfortable and less lonely with Aibo, which means "pal" in Japanese.
"Being in a nursing home by myself, I entertained myself for many hours playing with this dog, getting him to do new tricks," says study participant Louise Crooks, 93. "I would have liked to keep him longer."
Dr. Takanori Shibata, the creator of Paro, has found similar results. Shibata and his colleagues found that robot interaction lowered stress, elevated moods and decreased depression.
Additionally, Paro encouraged communication and social behavior among subjects. What's more, Shibata found that brain activity increased 50% in patients with dementia after just twenty minutes with Paro. Caretakers were positively affected as well: The robots not only decreased nurses' stress levels but also gave them something to discuss with their elderly patients.
And newer robots have the potential to serve as much more than companions. The machines could monitor aged patients, watching out for falls, and remind them to take their medications.
Additionally, they could serve as communication tools, providing wireless voice and video links to distant friends and family members.
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