The animal that doesn’t poo

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R.research on cuddly robots shows us that how robots touch us is important, but what about how we touch them? Recently I visited Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London as part of a new research study I am undertaking. For those who don’t know, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital is an amazing place! It is unlike any hospital I have visited before. This is partly explained by the fact that it was developed with the arts and a sensory connection with the environment in mind. The hospital’s collection has over 2,000 works of art, including some by world-renowned artists Tracey Emin and Julian Opie. All are carefully displayed, with the addition of interior gardens and cinemas to bring the hospital to life.

My visit wasn’t just about the fantastic design of the hospital. It also allowed me to hear personally about some of the great new technologies staff are working with to support patients in healthcare settings. The one that stood out to me were the robotic pets: a dog-like animal called Miro and a seal-like animal called Paro.

Remarkably, research has shown that when people interact with these types of robotic companions, they may experience reduced anxiety, blood pressure, and pain. This pattern of results tends to be found when focusing on specific vulnerable groups, such as older people living in institutions. For example, a 2013 study led by researchers at the University of Auckland, compared the blood pressure of elderly residents before, during and after an interaction with Paro. Paro is modeled after a Canadian harp seal and is covered in white fur.1 Study participants petted and touched him, and Paro responded by moving and making baby seal noises. You could even say that it acts as a virtual pet.

The consequences of the experiment were fantastic. Elderly residents were more relaxed. They also had lower blood pressure when interacting with the seal.

In body image
FEEL THE SEAL: When patients have this furry robot companion, a seal named Paro, to pet, they see positive physiological and mental results. Photo by Angela Ostafichuk/Shutterstock.

We know that pets can be beneficial for people’s stress and well-being. Robot seals could be an elegant solution to bringing these kinds of benefits to people who can’t have furry companions in their lives.

It also turns out that companion robots don’t necessarily need to be furry to provide wellness benefits. Even interacting with plastic robot dogs can reduce the loneliness of elderly participants living in nursing homes. Saint Louis University School of Medicine researchers examined the effects of interaction with a live or robotic dog on levels of loneliness. (The robotic dog in this study was an Aibo robotic dog, not to be confused with the Miro dog that I met at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital: robotic dogs come in different breeds too!)

Both the living dog and the robot dog have helped to improve the level of loneliness of the elderly. Remarkably, there was no statistical difference in improved loneliness between those who interacted with the real dog and those who spent time with the robot dog. A finding that strikes me as oddly offended, though it might be out of loyalty to the family dog, Loki, who sleeps at my feet as I write this!

Putting Loki’s feelings aside, we know that having pets can benefit well-being and loneliness. Access to a real pet is not always possible, especially for residents of nursing homes for the elderly. These findings offer an interesting possibility for alleviating loneliness in the elderly.

Extract of Touch Matters: Handshakes, Hugs and New Science on How Touch Can Improve Your Well-Being by Michael Banissy. Published by Chronicle Prism. Copyright © 2023 by Michael Banissy.

Main image: Molenira / Shutterstock

Footnote

1. I was told that a harp seal was used instead of a dog to prevent people from being distracted by the robot’s resemblance to an animal they might have encountered in the real world. I suspect most of you have had fewer encounters with a real harp seal than with a real dog.



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