Robotic Therapy Seal Comforts Japanese Earthquake Survivors

Remember Paro, the cute & cuddly robot seal pup designed to soothe and comfort people suffering from emotional distress? Now in its eighth generation, the sensor-equipped robot has been making the rounds of nursing homes, hospitals and psychiatric facilities in Japan and around the world since 2003. Now Paro has a new mission, one that hits close to home: soothing victims of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

Though over 4 months have passed since the earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated Japan's northeastern coast, many local residents remain in evacuation centers waiting for new homes and health care infrastructure to be constructed. Living in these makeshift centers can be highly stressful: a 93-year-old woman recently committed suicide when she heard she might be shifted to another center, left a note reading (in part) "I will evacuate to the grave. I am sorry."

The evacuation centers have seen a steady parade of high-profile visitors ranging from French chefs who prepared gourmet meals for the evacuees to celebrities like Justin Bieber. Even so, most days are long and boring while nights can be frightening for children and the elderly.

Visits from therapy robots like Paro can do much to help relieve stress in the short term, and unlike living therapy animals the robot doesn't need to be fed, housed or otherwise maintained with the necessities of life.

The images included with this article are from a BBC/NHK video of Paro's visit to an evacuation center near the town of Minamisanriku in Miyagi Prefecture. Like many other seaside towns, Minamisanriku was virtually wiped off the map by the tsunami. Roughly half of the town's per-quake population of approximately 19,000 have been accounted for.

Although children seem to be the most pleased and fascinated by Paro, the animatronic robot strikes a chord with the elderly as well. The old woman featured in the video and these images tells Paro she's doing her best to persevere and think positive.

Interacting with Paro can help those affected by family loss, separation anxiety and feelings of isolation cope with their situation and adjust to new realities. For that, Paro gets my “seal” of approval. (via BBC and Cnet)