- PARO is a robot modelled after a baby harp seal designed to provide social care in hospitals and other care facilities.
- A new study from Ben-Gurion University analysed the furry robot’s impact on pain thresholds, oxytocin levels and happiness.
- The Japanese-built robot has proven to be beneficial in calming down Alzheimer and dementia patients
Who doesn’t want to pet a cute baby seal, even if it is a robot?
Meet PARO, a furry robot modelled after a baby harp seal that’s been used since 2003 in hospitals and care facilities to help reduce stress in patients with Alzheimer’s, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer, brain injuries, psychosocial disabilities, and even in children.
It was developed by Takanori Shibata from the Intelligent System Research Institute of Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology department.
PARO has five kinds of sensors that help it react to its environment and whoever is handling it: tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture. It learns its behaviour, seeks out eye contact and even imitates the voice of a real baby seal.
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Touch important to humans
One research group from Ben-Gurion University in Israel, however, wanted to find out if touching a social robot can stimulate the same pain reduction as when humans touch, and published their findings in Nature’ Scientific Reports.
Their subject group involved 83 young, healthy adults and analysed their pain threshold, happiness and oxytocin levels in their saliva when interacting with PARO. Divided into three different groups, one group got to touch the seal, another only experienced the robot from afar without touching it and another had no interactions with PARO at all.
Touch is an important part of a human’s social, physical and mental well-being, and helps create bonds that form a protective mechanism against stress and pain. It is a basic human need.
“How, then, can the beneficial effect of emotional touch on the perception of pain be provided to individuals who do not have access to it?” asks the researchers in their paper.
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Effect of social connections
With PARO, they found that the group that touched the robot experienced a decreased sensitivity to pain – generated through heat stimuli – and perceived themselves as happier after interacting with the robot. Interestingly, however, oxytocin levels decreased, making them much calmer.
Oxytocin is a hormone that a part of the brain secretes, associated with social bonding and love in humans. However, it can also cause aggression and antisocial behaviour towards people outside of a person’s close social network.
The reduced levels can make it easier for participants to trust and be sociable with PARO around.
“It appears that the effect of social connections on happiness is not exclusive to human-human interactions,” write the Israeli researchers.
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While previous studies have been done on the usefulness of social robots when it comes to medical procedures and helping patients cope, this is one of the first studies to use healthy adult subjects, and specifically analyses the effects of touch.
Helping lonely people reconnect
They note, however, that the reduced pain levels could be due to PARO acting as a distraction, but it was more prevalent in the group that touched the robot than those who interacted with it from a distance.
The findings also showed that the more empathetic the individual, the higher their pain threshold becomes while bonding with PARO, which should warrant further studies.
Social robots could thus become a useful tool in pain management alongside helping medical patients cope with their various ailments, and make it easier for them to trust their healthcare workers.
It might also just help lonely people reconnect with the world.
READ: Be wary of robot emotions: 'Simulated love is never love'
Image credit: Felix Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images