PARO is an animatronic baby seal companion robot designed by some very clever people with one simple purpose in mind - to make you love him. From everything we've seen, he's exceptionally talented at his job, melting the hardest hearts and bringing a big silly smile to everyone who meets him. But although he might be a wonderful toy, PARO's real purpose is to address a serious problem that's affecting Japan right now, and will soon spread across much of the Western world.
Japan is facing serious demographic problems in the next 30 years - a slow birth rate in recent decades means that the population is aging at an alarming rate. Put simply, the Japanese tend to live longer than almost anyone in the world, but they're having very few children - and it's expected that by 2030, nearly a third of all Japanese citizens will be over the retirement age of 65.
Nobody knows this better than the Japanese themselves, who are arming themselves with technology at a furious rate; they're developing an astounding array of robotics to keep the country producing as the size of its workforce dwindles - they're light years ahead of the West on things like lightweight, safe personal transport solutions, powersuit-style exoskeletons for the weak and infirm and domestic automation.
There's a massive economy developing to produce all sorts of technology that can help the elderly and disabled get on with a good quality of life while freeing up the younger generation to keep the country running. And while that's going to be big business in Japan in the near future, it's going to be big business across the western world in the longer term, because all the trends are pointing to lower birthrates across the first world that will put us all in a similar position.
As the Blues Brothers sang, everybody needs somebody to love. The therapeutic effect of companionship and affection is well understood to enhance both physical and mental wellbeing - it's one of the reasons so many people keep pets.
But pets can be a difficult proposition when you're talking about the elderly. For starters, a significant proportion of elderly or disabled folk aren't able to properly care for a pet - then there's the fact that you can't take them with you into a nursing home or hospital situation, because of all the fluff and fur and poop and mayhem and allergies they cause.
Which is why animatronic pets like PARO, designed purely to tickle the nurturing and affection circuits in your brain, are starting to pop up - it's less a matter of the Japanese being obsessed with everything 'Kawaii" (cute), and more to do with the fact that there will soon be a lot of lonely older folk around whose kids must, for society's sake, be too busy working to give them as much time and affection as they need.
PARO is modeled on a baby harp seal, the same adorable little creatures that are clubbed to death in their tens of thousands by Canadian fishermen each year - sorry about that gruesome tidbit. AIST originally experimented with building animatronic cats and dogs as the obvious companions of choice, but quickly found that while such familiar animals were initially charming, they lost their appeal when people automatically started comparing them with real animals.
The baby seal form is familiar enough to be cute and adorable, but because most people don't know exactly how real baby seals behave, it's easier to get across the comparison boundary and just enjoy the fluffy little robots for what they are.
And what they are is exceptionally compelling, considering that this is very early days. Although real baby seals are nocturnal, PARO is awake during the morning and afternoon and gets 'sleepy' in the evening. It has five senses, and uses them to perceive touch, light, sound, temperature and posture.
He's programmed to behave as much as possible like a real animal, waking up a little dazed and confused, enjoying cuddles and pats, complaining if he wants attention or 'food' (a battery charge), and reacting with fear and anger to being hit. He gradually learns to respond to whatever name you keep calling him, as well as various other audio cues like greetings and praise.
PARO knows where you're patting him and reacts accordingly, nuzzling up to your hand or wriggling away if you're touching him in places he doesn't like. He closes his eyes and snuggles up when he's happy and content, and gets angry if he feels mistreated. He blinks and bats his big eyelashes at you and meeps pitifully for affection. He particularly likes being treated and petted in familiar ways, which is a crucial part of developing a long-term relationship with his owners.
And considering how new this kind of device is, he's already a bit of a superstar, winning hearts at trade shows all over the world. We were lucky enough to watch PARO work his charms on a stream of very serious-looking Japanese businessmen at a robotic trade show in Tokyo. One after another, they looked at the little baby seal with consternation, then touched him or patted him once or twice, and then absolutely melted, each one walking away with a big goofy smile and generally feeling all the better for meeting him. Job done.
PARO's remarkable ability to cheer you up (yes, you, whether you like it or not. This little fella really gets under your skin) is disturbingly powerful right now - and of course, there's going to be a version 2, 3, 4 and 5 in the next few years that will be even better at the job.
Robot pets with all the emotional and wellbeing advantages of real pets, but that never poop, bite, scratch, dig holes, get sick or run away. They're well on their way - and for an aging Japanese population, it's not a moment too soon.
More info on PARO over at the AIST website.