A 2013 study tested the effects of Paro on residents of a New Zealand retirement home. It was administered twice weekly for one hour per session over the course of twelve weeks. Afterward, the residents were compared to people in a Paro-free control group. The result: those who used Paro reported feeling significantly less lonely. Their Paro-less counterparts, on the other hand, felt lonelier.
Call it the Seal Effect.
Because that's what Paro is — a fluffy robotic seal.
Created by the Intelligent Systems Research Institute and designed to help those who suffer from dementia, Paro is a "therapeutic robot" equipped with cameras, microphones and other sensors that react to external stimuli. Deployed in the U.S. from coast to coast in a variety of venues, from V.A. hospitals to private residences, it has proven quite popular. During that study of New Zealand retirement home residents, in fact, people played with their plush companion more than they did the home's resident dog.
Now, six years later, robot helpers are significantly more advanced. Check out some of the most innovative ones.
You don't have to live in a retirement home to feel lonely. According to a 2018 Cigna study, nearly 50 percent of Americans "sometimes" or "always" feel alone. Of the 20,000 people surveyed, young adults between 18-22 felt loneliest.
Designed to fill that aching heart hole, companion robots offer a couple of huge advantages over real pets: you don't have to feed or clean up after them. And they've come a long way since Paro, nevermind Furbies and Tamagotchis. These days, a number of companies make innovative robo-pals that incorporate facial recognition, WiFi connectivity and built-in virtual assistants.
Take, for example, Groove X's "Lovot."
Location: Tokyo, Japan
How it's using robotics: What do you get when you cross "love" and "robot"? The literal answer is "Lovot" — and that's exactly what Groove X named its new companion bot. Lovot stands about 17 inches tall, rolls around on retractable wheels and can be dressed in different fuzzy outfits. Best of all, it packs some serious tech — like cameras, proximity sensors, microphones, Bluetooth connectivity, WiFi compatibility and a dual computer brain, all of which impart something of a simulated personality.
Industry impact: Groove X showed off Lovot at CES 2019, with plans for an initial release in Japan by year's end. Groove X plans to first sell Lovot in pairs, which will cost about $5,205, plus a monthly fee of about $160. It's true: love hurts.
Robots in medicine
Stanley Black and Decker
Location: New Britain, Connecticut
How it's using robotics: Pria is made by Stanley Black & Decker, the same company that manufacturers power drills and chainsaws. But while Pria can't help build a treehouse, it performs an equally laudable service: helping aging adults take their medication.
Pria can hold and dispense up to 28 medication doses, issuing reminders when it’s time to take them. Voice-controlled, it can also be used for two-way video calling so users can check in with caregivers or family members.
Industry impact: Pria is the result of a partnership between Stanley Black & Decker and Pillo Health. A version designed for the senior living industry is scheduled for release sometime in 2019.
While some robots make themselves at home in people's homes, others are born to roam the urban/suburban wilds. As tools of the retail sector, they'll likely become a greater presence at shops and convenience stores in the not-too-distant future.
SoftBank Robotics America
Location: San Francisco, California
How it's using robotics: A product of SoftBank's robotics wing, Pepper is often deployed in retail settings. Whether it's answering questions at a mall or acting as a store clerk, Pepper uses language processing and AI to interact with people.
Industry impact: At CES 2019, SoftBank Robotics showed off Pepper's facial recognition capabilities by having it identify customers and deliver their online orders. Pepper is also able to upsell and offer order-based suggestions of other things to purchase. SoftBank recently partnered with Simbe Robotics to deploy more retail bots worldwide.
Not all robots have cute faces and adorable personalities. Some are built strictly to get the job done in rough settings — like, for instance, the battlefield.
Retired U.K. intelligence officer John Bassett thinks the U.S. Army will have more combat robots than human soldiers by 2025. That's six short years from now. Depending on the roles they play, more robots could mean fewer casualties.
Location: Waltham, Massachusetts
How it's using robotics: Boston Dynamics' first robot was a load-bearing quadruped called BigDog. Funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, it was designed to tote heavy loads over different types of terrain. Since then, the company has added a handful of other robots to its stable, including quadrupeds like BigDog and humanoids like Atlas (seen above doing parkour).
It's now common to receive packages in a couple of days, even overnight. But a time is coming when that will seem unbearably slow — and we'll have robots to thank. One notable innovator in this realm, Amazon, has already begun using drones to deliver packages in 30 minutes or less. Other companies, like Uber, plan to deploy drones for quick food delivery. Because waiting is lame.
Location: Berkeley, California
How it's using robotics: Kiwi employs a fleet of food delivery robots, with the goal of making delivery as cheap and efficient as possible. Here's how it works: An in-store robot retrieves an order from the cook and hands it off to a self-driving pedicab, which transports the order to its destination. The food is then placed in a small rover and brought directly to customers.
Industry impact: Operating in a relatively small area, Kiwi serves college campuses like UC Berkeley and UCLA. As of February 2019, the company's record is about 500 deliveries in a day.
Besides delivering food, robots can also prepare it. As they have for years, restaurants use them to automate a variety of kitchen tasks and increase overall productivity. "In welcoming robot chefs, restaurants can consistently deliver delicious meals to their customers, no salaries involved," a recent Forbes opinion column opined. "And the price of personalized meals for health and other custom preferences, will decrease, as will the wait! It's a win-win situation for the culinary industry and its customers."
Location: Pasadena, California
How it's using robotics: Flippy is Miso Robotics' burger-flipping, deep-frying robot cook. Designed as a reliable kitchen assistant that consistently cooks food to a safe temperature and even cleans up after it’s done, Flippy's built-in camera uses AI and computer vision to recognize food and determine when it's ready.
Industry impact: Miso Robotics teamed up with the Los Angeles Dodgers to bring its robotic kitchen assistant to Dodger Stadium.
Images via Shutterstock, social media and screenshots of company websites