Presidential seal of approval

Visitors to Uniting AgeWell’s Noble Park Community might be surprised to see residents holding and stroking a very cute and quite noisy baby seal.

But what is perhaps even more surprising is that the cuddly critter is actually an advanced robot that has even charmed a former US president.

PARO, which stands for personal assistive robot, is a therapeutic aid that is primarily used to help calm agitation and relieve other symptoms of dementia.

When held, petted or stroked PARO’s sophisticated sensors and artificial intelligence prompt it to respond with complementary gentle movements and cooing noises.

It will also learn to recognise an owner’s voice and will adopt a new name when one is repeated to it.

At the beginning of August a single-unit PARO was introduced as a trial at the Noble Park Community.

“It’s been a great success,” Uniting AgeWell special projects manager Carol Fountain said.

“We’ve already found that particularly for people who are agitated. It’s backed up by quite a lot research, so it’s not just a novelty.”

PARO was invented by Professor Takanori Shibata, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (also known as AIST).

Prof Shibata, who visited Melbourne last month, said PARO had a wider application than aged care.

“It is also very good for children or adults who have developmental problems,” he said.

Prof Shibata said he had made a robotic harp seal, rather than a common pet such as a dog or a cat, because people would be more likely to accept and less critically scrutinise a mechanised animal they were less familiar with.

While PARO is relatively new to Australia there are 5000 models in use throughout Japan, Europe and the US, where the federal government has certified it as a medical device.

PARO has also made a cameo appearance in The Simpsons and one even caught the eye and imagination of former US President Barack Obama when he was visiting Japan in 2010.

Should you want to take home a PARO of your own it will set you back $7580, but they do come in a choice of four colours.

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