At the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco’s Japantown, my girlfriend and I expected many things. We expected to see beautiful performances of Japanese dancing. We expected to be thrilled by taiko. We expected to gorge ourselves on street food. We even expected to see odd American tourists wearing panda gear, even though pandas are Chinese and not Japanese. What we did not expect to see, however, was an adorable robotic baby harbor seal named PARO.
The Japanese have an almost unnatural obsession with robots. While I struggle to understand it at times, I had zero problems understanding how someone could love this “kawaii” little guy. While it may be a robot inside, it is soft and cuddly on the outside and has been programmed to be responsive to the world around it in a way that is far more sophisticated than a child’s toy. As the PARO website points out:
“Paro has five kinds of sensors: tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture sensors, with which it can perceive people and its environment. With the light sensor, Paro can recognize light and dark. He feels being stroked and beaten by tactile sensor, or being held by the posture sensor. Paro can also recognize the direction of voice and words such as its name, greetings, and praise with its audio sensor.
Paro can learn to behave in a way that the user prefers, and to respond to its new name. For example, if you stroke it every time you touch it, Paro will remember your previous action and try to repeat that action to be stroked. If you hit it, Paro remembers its previous action and tries not to do that action. ”
So far it’s been used as a surrogate for animal therapy in hospitals where terminally ill patients may not have access to live animals (for expense or health reasons). I was unable to find a decent video of the PARO interacting with patients on YouTube to embed here, but the PARO website has many videos of happy patients interacting with these cute guys which you need to see to have a real understanding of the appeal.
But, in my eyes, the cutest thing about him is that his power cord is a pacifier!