Cuddlier than a Tamagotchi, less trouble than a Tribble, scientists believe that robotic seals could improve the lives of dementia sufferers.
A team of international researchers, including an academic from a British university, has found the electronic therapeutic companions made mid to-late-stage sufferers of the degenerative condition experience lower levels anxiety, aggression and loneliness whilst increasing the amount of pleasure they felt.
With their fluffy white fur, large black eye and long whiskers, the Paro is based on the wild baby harp seal which inhabits the waters off Canada. Robots are fitted with artificial intelligence and tactile sensors which make them capable of displaying surprise, anger and happiness.
The creatures respond to petting and recognise their names.
In a pilot project in Australia, 18 patients were issued with a Paro robot for a five week period. The group was then assessed according to clinical dementia measurements which included their level of apathy and their tendency to wander.
The results were then compared to dementia sufferers who had taken part in a reading group over the same period.
Professor Glenda Cook, Professor of Nursing at Northumbria University, said: “Our study provides important preliminary support for the idea that robots may present a supplement to activities currently in use and could enhance the life of older adults as therapeutic companions and, in particular, for those with moderate or severe cognitive impairment.”
Scientists in Japan, where Paro was devised in 2001, have spent years trying to produce technological solutions for the country’s increasingly ageing population.
It is claimed that robots could help eventually reduce the need for care and save health services tens of millions of pounds each year.
Dementia currently costs the UK more than £23bn a year. One in three of those affected is aged over 65. The number of diagnosed cases is expected to rise from 800,000 to 1.7m by 2050.
Researchers identified the need to undertake a larger trial in order to increase the data available as well as compare the effect of the robot companions with live animals.
Whilst the presence of live animals has been shown to increase the verbal interaction and social behaviour of older people, pets are normally banned from social care settings because of the risk of infection or for health and safety reasons.