In the eighth episode of Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix show Master of None, we meet PARO, a therapeutic robotic companion seal and total scene-stealer. You were likely asking the same questions by the time the credits rolled: Is PARO real? Why is it a seal? Where can we get our paws on one? Thankfully, Dr. Takanori Shibata, creator of PARO (which you can purchase, by the way, if you have about $5,000), emailed us from his native Japan to answer some of our burning questions.
How did you come up with the idea for PARO?
When I started to develop “personal robot” in 1993, I wondered what kind of robot I should do. I thought if I develop some robots for tasks such as cleaning and cooking, specialized machines are better and cheaper than a robot that can work on many tasks. Therefore, I thought I should develop [one] that is useless in terms of works or tasks. I thought of what we have in our lives. Pet animals are useless in terms of works or tasks, but a lot of people love animals. I wondered what is their role for humans. Pet animals can enrich our lives psychologically.
I investigated a lot of research on human-animal bonds and animal therapy. Animals are very good for humans, but some people cannot own them because of allergies, fears of bites and scratches, infections from animals to humans, etc. Some places such as hospitals and elderly facilities also do not accept animals because of difficulty of management, infection, cost, etc. For example, for a therapy dog, we have to choose an appropriate kind of dog and train it with about $30-40K, and it may cost about $50K over its whole life (about 12 years). Therefore, I thought if animal-type robots are accepted by humans and have therapeutic effects like animals, they should be more attractive, convenient and cheaper for people and facilities that cannot own real animals.
Why did you choose to make PARO a seal verses another kind of animal?
A seal is very cute and has good shape for holding. Of course, dogs and cats are more popular than seals. I developed a dog robot and a cat robot as well as a seal robot. I asked people to evaluate them. In the cases of familiar animals such as dogs and cats, people had high value before interacting with them, but when they started to interact with them, they reduced the value because they compared the robots with images of real animals and became very critical. In the case of a seal, people did not have high expectations, but through interacting with it, they increased value on it. Therefore, as a seal is not very familiar to them, people can accept a seal robot very easily.