Robotic baby seals are helping COVID-19 patients fend off loneliness

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Robotic baby harp seals are helping COVID-19 patients with loneliness.

Being hospitalized is already a difficult experience. Now, imagine lying there, battling a life-threatening disease without the support of your loved ones. That is an unfortunate reality for COVID-19 patients around the world.

To help battle that loneliness, healthcare workers are turning to an unlikely ally—robotic baby seals. The sophisticated robots are much more than just a stuffed animal. They are programmed with artificial intelligence (AI) to decrease patient stress levels, improve socialization, and help prevent patients from getting lonely in isolated COVID-19 units.

Unique Approach to Holistic Care

Due to the increased strain on the healthcare system, most hospitals have temporarily banned visitors from their facilities. This serves not only to slow the spread of the virus but also to keep hospital staff from getting overwhelmed.

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Unfortunately, sick patients get the brunt of the approach.

Although PARO Robots didn’t originally design their robotic baby harp seals for the pandemic, they are here at the perfect time. Each unit costs $6,000 and weighs about as much as a human baby.

On the outside, the robots look like adorable plush toys. To a degree, that’s true. However, on the inside, they are actually high-tech “therapeutic robots” that have been enhanced by AI.

The company’s website says, “By interacting with people, Paro responds as if it is alive, moving its head and legs, making sounds, and showing your preferred behavior. Paro also imitates the voice of a real baby harp seal.”

Helping the Elderly

Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately killed elderly people. As such, strict social distancing measures have been put into place in facilities like nursing homes and long-term care units. While that is good for keeping patients physically healthy, it can have devastating effects on their psychological health.

Paro is helping healthcare workers provide some form of socialization for elderly patients in a time where human interaction can turn deadly.

“The role of social robots like Paro is becoming more important, especially as we see this sector of our population targeted by this virus,” says Sandra Petersen, a program director at the University of Texas at Tyler’s nursing department. “It’s built for a time such as this.”

Of course, no one would argue that a device like Paro is an equal substitute for human interaction. For right now, though, it’s an ideal solution.

More importantly, Paro is getting results. The baby seal robot’s maker has run multiple studies that prove it actually helps with loneliness.

Petersen says, “One lady who had been nonverbal for eight years, per her family’s report, started talking and her first words were ‘I love you’—to the Paro.”

Perhaps that’s why practitioners around the world are turning to Paro as a therapeutic tool for patients who have been isolated by COVID-19.

Other companies are developing their own therapeutic robots as well. For instance, Sony has Aibo, a dog equipped with a camera that makes monitoring children and elderly patients easier.

Regardless of what device it is, this use of robots is intriguing. Although it brings up many ethical questions—like to what degree should robots be involved in healthcare—it also shows how useful they can be. For patients experiencing isolation because of COVID-19, companionship in any form is appreciated—even if it’s from a robotic baby seal.

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