Robotic companion to help astronauts tackle stress and loneliness in space

Robotic companion to help astronauts tackle stress and loneliness in space

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PARO , the robotic baby seal

Staying and working inside a shuttle or a space station while on a mission to outer space does seem fascinating to the observers and is more of a dream voyage for space enthusiasts who marvel at the sight of gravity-defying astronauts floating in their spacesuits. But everything is not as glossy as it appears. The job of an astronaut requires a very high level of concentration, robust mental and physical health, years of painstaking training, rigorous routine, meticulous planning and a methodical approach.

While it goes without saying that the physical, mental and emotional well-being and endurance of astronauts are higher than normal people and they are better trained to tackle the most grueling situations, this, however, doesn’t grant them any immunity from stress-related disorders, anxiety, loneliness, weariness or depression. Astronauts are equally prone to frustration and alienation as everybody else and this issue needs to be addressed in an innovative manner.

PARO – the robotic baby seal

Dr Takanori Shibata with PARO

Dr Takanori Shibata, chief scientist, National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Japan, has a solution. His robotic pet PARO, which is a unique non-interventionist device that Dr Shibata claims could help astronauts in space to deal with loneliness and stress. Carrying real pets to space is almost impossible and PARO could serve as an alternative to real pets, generating the same warmth and giving the same personalized affectionate feel to the astronaut.

At first glance, Dr Shibata’s robotic device would look like any other endearing soft toy that kids snuggle up to. But the more you know about this ingenious therapeutic robot the more you would love to cuddle this baby seal robot. PARO is not a simple stuffed toy. It is enabled with Artificial Intelligence and has a visible impact on stress reduction, relaxing patients, stimulating interaction and improving the socialization of patients.

Robotic Seal PARO in multiple colors

Currently, PARO is being used in more than 30 countries around the world in helping patients suffering from diseases like Alzheimer’s, Autism, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and other forms of dementia.

In Denmark, 80% of the municipalities have already adopted PARO and in Singapore, the government funds reimbursements of 70% of the cost of PARO for elderly facilities. In Germany, therapy using PARO is covered under national health insurance. And in the UK National Health Service (NHS) uses PARO for Dementia as Non-pharmacological Therapy.

The reason why PARO is modeled on a baby seal and not on the more familiar kittens or puppies is also interesting. Dr Shibata says that a baby seal appeals to dog lovers as well as cat lovers in a non-partisan manner.

PARO in space

The space industry is also showing a keen interest in PARO and is willing to experiment with it. For long-term missions where communicating with friends and families become difficult, PARO can prove to be a companion.

Dr Dan Barry, a former American astronaut who flew thrice on the space shuttle with two trips to the International Space Station, believes that PARO would be a wonderful addition to long-term space flights. “Based on my experience, I think that PARO would be very popular with the crew. PARO would improve emotional support, help with isolation issues, and improve crew bonding,” he adds.

PARO has special sensors on its anti-bacterial and soil-resistant fur that responds to touch and blinks its eyes. The deep, expressive eyes of PARO give an impression that it is looking very attentively. PARO looks at people when it is addressed, cries in response to stimuli, and closes its eyes when it is scratched under the chin. It can also detect temperature and responds according to the touch and the way it is lifted.

PARO has a black buttoned nose that has two light sensors that help in light detection. The battery lasts for 5-6 hours and can be easily recharged. It has been programmed with the response of a baby harp seal. PARO is also equipped with a microphone and is capable of speech recognition as well as sound localization.

Dr Shibata worked on the development of PARO for more than a decade and has been promoting it actively. The initial suspicion and skepticism around PARO have been put to rest and it serves a very important purpose of reducing reliance on caregivers in the age of automation and AI.

Exploring a new avenue

PARO has made its mark in the field of treatment and for helping patients, but it is yet to fly on a space mission. With the overall willingness shown by the space industry, very soon we will see astronauts carrying the adorable PARO along with them. This will be a new paradigm in the space industry and would mean not only an acknowledgment of the stress that astronauts encounter on missions but also a remedy for reducing it.

Initially, there may be a few challenges like space administrators questioning the efficacy of PARO as its results are yet to be seen and it would take years before its qualitative impact could be gauged. However, as Dr Shibata emphasizes, the acceptance of the medical community points to Paro’s success. “The fact that Medicare and private insurance accept reimbursement of the cost of biofeedback therapy with PARO for anxiety, pain, depression, stress, etc. is proof enough of its success.”

Once the maiden mission carrying PARO takes off, there could be a more realistic assessment based on the first-hand experiences of the astronauts in handling PARO and how it helped them feel more relaxed and motivated. Mental calm and emotional well-being is the most crucial requirement in any exacting scenario and efforts should be made to mitigate the stress and frustration that perniciously affects work productivity and concentration.

A stout emotional support mechanism and being under the impression that someone is there to listen to you does wonders and provides a boost to a person’s confidence. With the increasing realization about the indispensability of a support mechanism, PARO could soon be one of the main spacing accouterments.