The eighth episode of Netflix’s Master of None deals with an unsettling topic: how we treat older people. While the episode probes how we treat the older people we know and encourages us to reach out to them more, it also introduces a curious thing: Paro, the Therapeutic Robotic Seal.
Dev (Aziz Ansari) and his friend Arnold Baumheiser (Eric Wareheim) are visiting Arnold’s grandfather, a war veteran, when they get sucked into watching his favorite movie Twins on VHS. Tracking problems lead Dev to suggest that he just get a Blu-Ray player, but granddad balks at the idea, saying he doesn’t trust lasers. What he does trust is Paro, a high-tech robotic seal who turns out to be a great companion for human beings.
Paro exists in real life. Japanese engineer Takanori Shibata spent nine years developing Paro to help patients with dementia. Since he’s been released in 2005, Paro has proven to be up to the task of comforting patients with dementia, but humans of all ages and health designations are able to be “healed,” by Paro’s subtle therapy.
Paro’s sensors help him respond to movement, light, and sound. He can mimic “listening” by moving his eyebrows, and seems to know when he’s being petted. “He’s my best friend,” said an 80-year-old Tokyo woman, Sumiko Tokuno, who has schizophrenia and dementia. “I feel less afraid because he can listen to me.” This is what we all want: to be listened to.
One reactionary fear we have when we confront the idea of robots as companions is that they might be so effective that they will further isolate groups prone to isolation. Research seems to indicate, however, that Paro has the opposite effect: people interacting with Paro are more likely to interact with other people. This means that robots like Paro may help teach us how to be more social when we’re feeling vulnerable, and how to overcome so social phobias. Paro also seems to help us break the social tension that keeps us lonely when we’re around other people by modeling behavior for us, injecting humor into the situation and easing our fears and insecurities.
Anecdotal stories from nursing homes also support this. From the WSJ.com:
‘One recent morning, staff at Marian Manor in Pittsburgh, one of Vincentian Collaborative’s homes, circulated three Paros among residents gathered for a sing-a-long. As 77-year-old Anita Biro sat down at a table, she berated two fellow residents and told them to leave, recalls Beth Kuenzi, activities manager for the home’s dementia unit.
But when Ms. Kuenzi put Paro in front of Ms. Biro, her mood changed. As Ms. Biro stroked the robot’s synthetic fur, the machine batted its eyelashes and tracked movement with its head and eyes.
“I love this baby,” Ms. Biro cooed.’
Another reaction many have had to Paro is that is just doesn’t feel right that an electronic device can provide emotional support. In many ways, Paro is a stand-in for a pet (he’s very intentionally not designed as a puppy or kitten to avoid comparisons with past or present pets.) While a puppy’s devotion or a cat’s purring presence offers many of us the type of companionship we crave, they, too are wavering creatures who can get moody or sick. Pets are more stable companions than humans, but they require care as well. It’s difficult for hospitals and care facilities to house therapeutic pets because of the daily walks they require, and because of risks for complications like scratches, allergies, and fleas. Paro costs about $6000 (because he is an approved medical device, he’s often provided to facilities through grants and subsidies,) but the only maintenance he needs is getting his electric charge through an adorable pacifier. Patients get to mimic “caring” for Paro, like cuddling him in a blanket when they think he’s shivering or asking him “what’s wrong?” and petting him. This type of interaction is key for very sick patients, because they can rebuild their sense of worth by being the “carer” instead of the “cared for.” It’s an illusion, but it has very real physical and emotional health benefits.
Still, some wonder if this convenience of companionship is ethical, if it’s one step down to the point where we care for older people strictly with robots only, and totally abandon them. But, this seems like more of a snap reaction to new technology rather than a concern we should take seriously. If Paro lifts the mood of the patients playing with him, then he further facilitates better care and treatment from nursing staff and relatives, and the growing body of research around Paro continues to support this. Since he is interactive, he can bond people together similar to the way people are nicer and more caring to each other when they are interacting with a pet. Objects like dolls and teddy bears have long been used to provide comfort for the ill and elderly, but Paro offers an extra layer of warmth. He’s responsive, and slightly unpredictable. Instead of dehumanizing us, Paro in action, as was exemplified on “Master of None,” seems to be a tool draw out our warmer, softer emotions.