Researchers test effects of baby seal robots on potential Mars dwellers

The AI-powered cuddling robots could provide therapy for future astronauts.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Paros therapeutic robot.jpg
Paros therapeutic robot.

ParoRobots.com  

Japan is seeking to one day launch adorable robotic seals called Paros into space, according to an article by the South China Morning Post (SCMP) published on Wednesday.

The aim is that these cuddly AI-driven machines will help astronauts cope with stress and even provide companionship on the Red Planet. 

The company has already undertaken a two-week simulation of a Mars mission at the U.S.-based Mars Desert Research Station, operated by the Mars Society in Utah.

The event saw would-be astronauts carry out first-aid drills, cultivate their own food, and simulate rock and soil recovery from Mars. More strangely, hey also tested Paro. 

“We studied how Paro mitigated feelings of stress and isolation and the data will be useful in supporting research on future analog missions,” a report on the simulation said.

“Half of the crew enjoyed time with Paro during the first week, while the others had access to him during week two,” it added.

An effective therapeutic tool

Introduced in 1998 and designed by Takanori Shibata, a researcher with the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tokyo, the robot has proved efficient as a therapeutic tool in many care facilities.  It has also been shown to be effective in calming patients with dementia

This is because the robots' artificial intelligence systems enables them to respond to touch, remember faces and learn and repeat actions that trigger a favorable and pleasant reaction in the patient.

Researchers test effects of baby seal robots on potential Mars dwellers
The Paros robot.

The robot boasts dual 32-bit processors, three microphones, 12 tactile sensors, touch-sensitive whiskers, and a network of motors and actuators that see it gracefully, quietly and realistically. 

Paro measures 57cm from nose to tail and weighs 2.6kg. It also mimics the sounds of a real baby seal and is programmed to be awake during the day and sleepy at night.

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Proved effective in reducing anxiety in children with autism, the adorable robot was recognized by the Guinness World Book of Records in 2002 for inducing the “greatest reduction in stress levels.” It is currently available in the U.S. and many European countries and has been used in elderly and psychological care facilities in Japan. 

The same as animals

“Paro’s role is the same as animals that are used to provide therapy, which has been shown to have positive effects,” Shibata told the SCMP.

“Animals are expensive, however, and take time to train for these roles, while they also require food and medical care,” he told This Week in Asia. “In comparison, robots are much cheaper and last longer.” 

Since the journey to Mars is expected to last six months and work on the planet is likely to continue for two years, the mission provides an ideal setting for testing the loveable robot’s many calming capabilities.

“The crew on a Mars mission will therefore be very isolated and there will be four people in a very limited space,” Shibata said. “There will be stress in their relations with other people in addition to the isolation. Paro will be able to improve the astronauts’ mental health conditions.”