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Can a Cute Robot Be Grandma's New Best Friend?

robot seal

Awwww, look at those big eyes and that soft white fur. Isn't he cute?

Meet Paro, a baby harp seal that looks like a cuddly stuffed animal, but is really a clever robotic medical device used to help comfort and relax lonely or distressed nursing home patients.

Whether or not this is a good idea -- or even ethical -- is a matter of some debate, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

Paro is a robot specially designed to provide companionship to the elderly. It was approved as a Class II medical device by the Food and Drug Administration in 2009, part of a growing class of robots used to interact and socialize with people. (It costs $6,000, by the way, if you're thinking of ordering one.)

Paro's people skills -- it happily coos and blinks when it's stroked and cuddled -- help make elderly patients in hospitals


or extended care facilities feel less lonely and anxious, health experts say.

Some facilities have used the furry friends to calm residents suffering from dementia. In Japan, where Paro was originally designed, the soft seal was used to console elderly survivors of this year's devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Is using Paro similar to using service animals to comfort patients? Or are we trying salve our conscience over having to place elderly parents in a nursing facility?

Some health experts say robots aren't the ideal solution, but if they help people and make their lives better, then why not use them?

Others, like MIT's Sherry Turkle, who studies the way people interact with technology, told the L.A. Times that robots can't provide real companionship and shouldn't be relied on to do so.

A few small studies suggest that the robots do help the elderly be more social.

A 2005 study of one nursing home found that residents spent more time in the common area and socialized more if a Paro was there too. Another study found that nursing home residents who interacted with their Paros also communicated and interacted more with each other.

Obviously, a nice, friendly dog would also be a good companion, but unlike a real dog, Paro doesn't shed, slobber or poop.

And that may be the real advantage of these cuddly devices.

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